Lemonade stands and cancer research don’t have much in common. But when the group known as Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) announces funding for childhood cancer research — and a WPI senior is one of the recipients — things get very sweet indeed.
April Solon of Longmeadow, Mass., is a rising senior majoring in biology & biotechnology and biochemistry. With mentor Lucio Castilla, professor of molecular, cell, and cancer biology at UMass Medical School, she is wrapping up research in the Plantation Street labs on a small molecule inhibitor’s activity in the body — AI-10-49.
The Pennsylvania-based ALSF began in 2006 when its founder, Alexandra Scott, started a lemonade stand in her yard to help kids who had cancer, like she did.
This year, the group awarded 50 Pediatric Oncology Student Training grants to students who worked with a research mentor over the summer at 24 institutions across the U.S. The goal of the grant program, says ALSF in a press release, is to encourage students with an interest in pediatric oncology “to change the course of childhood cancer treatments and cures.”
Solon has spent eight weeks at the Castilla Lab at UMass Medical School. "I’ve been studying the effects of a small-molecule inhibitor on cancer cells of a specific type of leukemia [AML, or acute myeloid leukemia] with a mutation that creates a fusion protein and disrupts normal function of the cells,” she says. The inhibitor specifically targets this protein, killing the cancerous cells. Castilla oversees Solon's work, along with postdoctoral students at the lab.
Applying for the grant required a general research plan to be submitted, Solon says. She will send a report of her findings to ALSF, as well, when her lab work wraps up.
For Solon, who sees graduate school and a doctorate in her future, the grant and research work it funded is key to exploring her interest in molecular biology. Last year she served as an intern at Nemucore Medical Innovations in Worcester, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company that develops therapies targeting multidrug-resistant cancers. Paired with her WPI coursework, the internship and grant project have helped Solon get a better perspective.
“It definitely has been helpful, as I want to go on to grad school," she says. "Now I know do like [molecular biology]. It’s what I want to do.”
Solon says her ALSF grant research work will also serve as a base for her senior thesis project this coming school year. She will be working in the lab at UMass Medical again, beginning in the fall.
- By Susan Shalhoub