Richard Y. Ebright ’14 knew he wanted to conduct scientific research as soon as he arrived at Harvard.
Now, he is searching for molecules that could stop the spread of some cancers in human cells.
In the spring of his freshman year, Ebright reached out to Chemistry Professor Stuart L. Schreiber’s cancer research lab at the Broad Institute. Over the summer, he joined the lab full time in the Cancer Target Discovery and Development team. He was the only undergraduate student in a group of about a dozen full-time researchers.
But Ebright stacked up well against the complicated processes and extensive terminology used in the lab, according to Jaime Cheah, a research scientist at the Broad Institute and Ebright’s primary mentor.
“He came in as a first year undergraduate, but I found that I could show him a technique once or twice and he’d implement it professionally with no loss of quality,” she said.
Ebright was soon analyzing cell lines in an effort to understand the specific genetic relationships that can cause a cancer.
Ebright’s work involved identifying cancer lines that are either hypersensitive or resistant to certain small molecules.
The team screened about 250 cancer lines with known mutations across 300 specific small molecules whose interactions within the cells are well-known.
Using this technique, the researchers performed follow-up studies on a specific cancer-causing mutation within cells, which corresponds to the presence of the protein beta-catenin. Though usually in the “off state,” activated beta-catenin causes cell growth and proliferation resulting in cancer. The team’s goal was to determine the pathways through which the protein functioned.
“Based on the hypotheses that we confirm, new small molecules targeting these pathways can be identified or synthesized,” Ebright said. “This can lead to novel therapeutics and treatments for patients with cancers that rely on beta-catenin in order to function.”
At the beginning of this school year, Ebright returned to the lab to follow up on his summer research project. Currently, he is helping to design and implement additional experiments to identify molecules that target and prevent pathways necessary for cancer to occur.
The members of Ebright’s team said they are happy to have him back.
“He’s got a great personality and a good sense of humor. He’s a smart student with an incredibly bright future ahead of him,” Cheah said.
Ebright said he will continue his work in the lab throughout the school year and hopes his work will better the lives of millions affected by cancer.
“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” Ebright said. “But you have to figure out which pieces belong to the puzzle you’re working on before you can try to figure out how they all fit together.”
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