College undergraduate students active in cancer research
Friday, May 4, 2001
Lacey, Wash. - In 1999 Nick Drapela, assistant professor of chemistry
at Saint Martin's College, read an article in the Journal of Organic
Chemistry about a new chemical in the bark of the Sequoia tree that
showed an ability to inhibit the growth of some cancer cell lines. The
compound was sent to the National Cancer Institute for primary testing
against 60 human tumor cell lines and showed moderate inhibition of
them, with the greatest effect on breast cancer cell lines.
investor at the time was only able to get a very small amount of the
substance because it's produced only in minute quantities in the bark,"
said Drapela, who began teaching at Saint Martin's in 2000. "It's not
feasible to strip all the bark off of redwoods for a tiny amount of
compound, which creates the need to create the same compound from a
Today, under Drapela's supervision, three Saint Martin's students,
T.J. Underwood, Yuliza Davila and Lynn Marie Tu, are carrying on with
research that Drapela began while teaching in Colorado. Underwood is a
junior biology major from Chehalis, Davila is a junior biology major
from Olympia and Tu is a sophomore pre-medicine and chemistry major who
calls both Olympia and Seattle home. Each student is responsible for
constructing a separate strand of the compound.
"When all three are connected, hopefully we'll have the Sequoiatones
and be able to produce enough for further testing," Drapela said. "We're
trying to keep our ears open in case we hear of anyone else working on
this project. So far we haven't heard anything, but that doesn't mean
it's not happening."
Throughout the summer, members of the group will continue with their
attempts to synthesize Sequoiatones A and B, and allow for further
testing of the structure.
"It's great to be involved in a project that has so much potential,"
Underwood said. "It gives me goose bumps. With every day of research we
get more and more excited."
Even with little funding, they have been able to complete about eight
of the 18 steps necessary so far.
"If we construct our target compound and it passes the tests of
cancer inhibition, then the worldwide benefits of our research are
obvious. Scientists have been trying to find treatments for cancer for a
very long time,"
Underwood said. "But if we don't achieve our ultimate goal of making
the Sequoiatones, we will have provided new research that others around
the world can use in their studies. For instance, a compound that we
make might be the missing piece in someone else's project."
Whether the end results benefit the greater populace or other
scientists, members are finding that it has already benefited them
"Many people in my family have had cancer, which puts me at high risk
for developing it, so my interest in cancer research goes back as long
as I can remember," Davila said. "I wish we could get some results
sooner because my uncle has been fighting cancer for some time now and I
just wish that I could help him.
"Hopefully, we're on the right track with this compound because it
has the chance of saving and helping many lives."
The team faces countless challenges and it's not unusual for three
weeks of successes to be followed by months of nothing. By taking the
project and dividing it into three sections, Drapela said the team is
steadily making progress.
"What we're doing is working on a plan, kind of like a blueprint for
a house--except, with a house you know what type of board thickness
supports what amount of weight and so on," Drapela said. "In this case,
we're working on a new substance that no one has ever seen before so the
results won't be predictable."
For more information:
Nick Drapela, Assistant professor
Saint Martin's Chemistry Department
Christina Ramírez-Milhoan, communications specialist
Saint Martin's College Office of Communication