[LOCAL NOTE: Chih-Ping Mao is a 2005 graduate of Westwood High School in Austin, Texas]
Cervical Cancer Vaccine
New Approach Is Aimed at Treating Women
Who Already Have the Disease
Though he's just turned 20, Chih-Ping Mao is well on his way to becoming a highly respected scientist.
While still a high school student in Austin, Texas, he spent two years getting lab experience at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Last year, as a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, while many of his classmates were still getting comfortable on campus, Mao and a friend were contacting faculty members, looking for someone to sponsor their idea of using a bacterial compound to fight cancer.
Although that project did not pan out, Mao found a sympathetic ear in T-C Wu, a professor in the departments of Pathology, Oncology, Gynecology and Obstetrics, and Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Wu offered Mao a place in his lab training program last summer and sponsored him in a research project last fall.
In that project, supported by a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award, Mao set out to improve the potency of a DNA vaccine that Wu's team is developing to treat cervical cancer patients.
While proceeding with the project, Mao produced three lead-author research articles for medical science journals. Two have already been published, and a third is in press. He has also contributed to data that will appear in an upcoming research study by Wu's team.
"It's pretty cool," said Mao, who turned 20 on March 9. "I'm having a lot of fun in this lab."
Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research; some have published their results in professional journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's mission and its commitment to provide research opportunities for undergraduates. The awards are open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.
In a letter of support last spring for Mao's PURA application, Wu wrote, "Chih-Ping is one of the most creative and energetic young scientists whom I have had the pleasure of mentoring. He has an extraordinary passion for research and discovery, and his scientific abilities are truly impressive."
Wu's team is using a device called a "gene gun" to fire gold particles coated with DNA into dendritic cells, key players of the immune system, which reside in the skin. This activates the dendritic cells to teach the body's killer cells to attack the cervical cancer cells. Although current vaccines are aimed at preventing cervical cancers, Wu's medication is designed to combat the disease in women already diagnosed with cervical cancer or its precursor lesions.
In this process, however, some helpful cancer-killing immune cells can be destroyed during activation. Mao's goal was to use a technique called RNA interference to reduce the loss of helpful killer cells. "We're trying to prevent the killer T cells, the cancer fighters, from dying," he said. "It's a strategy to enhance the potency of Dr. Wu's vaccine."
In his experiments, Mao said, this technique led to two-to-three times more tumor-fighting cells. Further experiments, including tumor treatment experiments in animals, are needed, but Mao is optimistic about his initial results.
As a freshman, he was a biomedical engineering major, but Mao recently switched his major to biology. He was pleased to get a chance to work with Wu's team so early in his academic career. "I think this is a very rare opportunity," Mao said. "I feel lucky and very honored to work in such a great lab. Hopkins has wonderful faculty members doing very exciting things."
Digital photos of Chih-Ping Mao and T-C Wu available; Contact Phil Sneiderman.
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