Professor Brandee Rockefeller’s vascular malformation research could influence the way we treat cancer
“Students involved in hands-on research develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the process of science."
For nearly eight years, Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Brandee Rockefeller has been studying vascular malformations (abnormal connections between blood or lymph vessels) in an effort to better understand the molecular underpinnings of how and why vessels become malformed and consequently dysfunctional.
But the benefits of these past eight years of her research could have impacts that last lifetimes.
It was while doing her doctoral work at Albany Medical College with her mentor, Dr. Kevin Pumiglia, that she was first inspired, part of a lab interested in vascular tumors and vascular malformations, which she describes as merely blood vessels that grow unregulated with nothing to keep them in check and stop their growth. If that growth is occurring in a place like the brain, the kidneys, or the liver, it could have detrimental effects on the body, or worse, cause death.
“Most of them, however, particularly in pediatric patients, are within the skin,” Dr. Rockefeller explains. “My nephew was born with a vascular tumor called a hemangioma, which is under the same umbrella as vascular malformations collectively termed vascular anomalies. It has given me even more of a push for what I do and more of a personal connection to its impacts.”
Primarily interested in what fuels the growth of these blood vessels, she pays special attention to the body’s metabolism, because there is no uniform treatment for vascular malformations or vascular tumors.
“There have been a lot of clinical trials involved in blocking growth and migration, different aspects of cell signaling, and none of them have been largely successful. My goal is to understand, really, what’s going on in the cell, like the molecular underpinnings of vascular malformations or vascular tumors.”
With many characteristics of vascular malformations also shared by the vasculature (network of blood vessels connecting the heart with all other organs and tissues in the body) seen in cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and retinopathy, the application of Dr. Rockefeller’s research, which she terms ‘vascular biology,’ has the potential to be quite vast.
At Utica College, Dr. Rockefeller’s research involves culturing human cells and vascular morphogenesis assays for a variety of different manipulations, which she says can/will involve viral vectors, pharmacological applications, and nutrient changes within the media.
“To my knowledge, no one at Utica College has previously done cell culture with mammalian. cells. So, for the first time, I’ve gotten to develop a cell culture lab. I’ve integrated that into classrooms so we’re doing some cell culture in cell biology class and lab, which is awesome. We grow human umbilical vein endothelial cells. These human umbilical vein endothelial cells form vascular structures (what we would call a blood vessel network in our bodies) when plated on matrix proteins, and when genetically modified they form malformations just like they would in humans. Now we have the ability here at Utica to manipulate those cultures and employ different pharmaceutical agents to try to figure out how we can stop growth - not only stop the growth of malformations, but hopefully normalize the vascular structures.”
Dr. Rockefeller explains that while some children who have these vascular defects suffer from only cosmetic disfigurement, others can see harmful impacts when malformations are present within organs like the brain, possibly causing hemorrhage or stroke. As part of her ongoing research, Dr. Rockefeller has had students who’ve grown blood vessels in a culture dish which form sheets of malformations, allowing them to try and impede that growth and return the vessels to normal.
Cancer research is not something one commonly sees as the undergraduate level, but the opportunity for student-faculty collaboration on such exploration is one of the things that attracted Dr. Rockefeller to Utica College in the first place.
“When I was interviewing here, I saw poster after poster of student research and they gave me a list of all the publications our students have been involved in. There is nothing better as a scientist, I think, than getting students involved in your research. There is nothing better than seeing a young mind realizing they’re doing something big. Not only does that come with general research, but I think because cancer is such a translatable thing - everyone is affected by it. I think the impact of getting involved in cancer research is just so relatable and it means a lot to students, and that’s one of my driving forces too. Utica College has such a unique culture where so many of the biology students want to be involved in research - they thrive off it and that’s not like every other undergraduate institution. That excited me, that I could bring a new, unique aspect here.”
Her hope is to continue collaborating with scientists for a better understanding of these vascular anomalies, which will influence management and treatment for patients like her nephew.
“It is quite possible for our research to also expand the knowledgebase and inform treatment and/or treatment development for many other pathologies that share dysfunctional vasculature as a characteristic, some of which I mentioned above. I also love working with the students here at UC. More than just gaining a deeper understanding of reading scientific literature specifically that pertaining to vascular biology and hands-on lab experience, I enjoy seeing students develop an appreciation of how much work goes into understanding disease and treatment development.”
She’ll get to see even more students getting the hands-on experience of this research, with the completion of the new Utica College Science Center, offering a wide array of resources to expand research opportunities for students further than ever before.
“The new science center has a cell culture lab fitted with equipment specifically designed to culture and manipulate human cells, like human umbilical vein endothelial cells (the major cell type of my research focus). There is also a room dedicated to microscopy, which is how we view and image all of our cultures.”
Other equipment, Dr. Rockefeller says, has also been purchased to aid in tackling more of the molecular-based questions she and her fellow research scientists have, and she’s happy to discuss those research opportunities with any student interested.
“Typically, student research begins with reading background scientific literature and discussion, as well as conversations about technical approaches and what exactly we can learn from these approaches. Together we develop a research question(s) and “plan of attack.”
While the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and the construction of the new science center temporarily put a halt on cell culture experiments, Dr. Rockefeller says she is happy and ready to jump right back in with the growing resources the Science Center has to offer, research that has the potential to benefit both the world, as well as the students helping to get it there.
“Students involved in hands-on research develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the process of science. Some find they do not like research and some love research, but in my experience students all see value added in having research experience.”
Through these experiences, students have the opportunity to develop laboratory skills, they immerse themselves in scientific literature becoming more comfortable with reading and critical analysis of papers, and those that choose to present findings develop confidence and communication skills.
“Communicating science effectively is not as easy as one may think,” Dr. Rockefeller points out.
And while not every step of the way may be without its share of setbacks, Dr. Rockefeller says that it’s these challenges that help researchers like herself and her students pave the way for scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to change the world.
“One of the greatest “adventures” of research is learning to accept that not every single experiment goes as planned (most do not actually), but there is always something to be learned. The beauty of science is that every new discovery (even those unplanned or those that come from failed experiments) opens the door for brand new exciting questions.”
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