By Katelyn White
Once again, Dr. James Riggs, professor of biology, has received a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). This grant has pushed Riggs to $1.3 million for total grants received.
During the course of the 23 years Riggs has worked at Rider, he has received nine grants to support his research. Eight were from NIH, and the other was from the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research.
According to Mike Rutkowski, Rider’s grant coordinator, the recent grant Riggs obtained was the biggest grant he has gotten so far, totaling $364,593.
“In the past he’s gotten a series of smaller grants. This one was the biggest one yet,” Rutkowski said. “The best part about it is that there will be student research involved.”
This grant will be used to support undergraduate student research on a drug known as erythropoietin (EPO), which suppresses the immune system.
“The drug is used to treat people with anemia,” Riggs said. “When a cancer patient gets treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it kills the cancer dividing cells. However, it damages their blood cell generating system, causing them to become anemic. EPO is used to treat anemia associated with cancer treatment.”
The start of this research goes back to 2007, when Riggs and Michelle Borlowski, a graduate student who worked in his lab, had conversations about cancer research. At that time, an article from The New York Times came out about EPO.
“The article from NYT explained that there was an increased rate of occurrence of cancer in the EPO treated patients,” he said.
Borlowski and Riggs worked with a system in the lab that allows one to look at immune regulation, which is how cells talk to one another in the immune system that mimics cancer microenvironments. Riggs explained that after experimenting and analyzing EPO and its effects on the immune system in the lab, they got interesting results.
“The immune response was suppressed, turned off,” he said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what you want inside of a tumor or cancer environment.”
The grant proposal was put together in fall 2012 and awarded this past fall. The grant supports three years of research to study the connection between EPO and immune system suppression. Riggs said that multiple undergraduate students will be working with him in the lab.
“There will be five students helping me out in the lab, two juniors and three freshmen,” Riggs said.
Kornelija Valiuskyte, junior biology major, has been assisting Riggs since spring of her freshman year.
“I really enjoy working with him in the lab,” Valiuskyte said. “This particular research has been extremely interesting to work on, because new things keep popping up that have not been observed before. It’s pretty exciting to be a part of an experiment that will bring even more new information to the science community.”
Riggs is very pleased with the hard work has been accomplished so far.
“Over the last 10 years, the biology department has been worth over $4 million in grants,” Riggs said. “The majority of the faculty and staff in the department is doing something that is funded by grants, so it’s really great for students.”
Riggs explained how the grant will be split up and what the fund will be put toward.
“We use a lot of monochloro antibodies as tools for research to let us look at and study the cells.”
Small vials of reagents can cost hundreds of dollars. Riggs said they would need about 20 to 30 of them.
“Research is not cheap, basically,” he said.
Elissa Lomakova, freshman biochemistry major, is one of the lab students who will be helping Riggs with this research. Lomakova is in the Freshman Science Honors Program, which requires her to start an independent research study with a faculty mentor.
“As a member of this program, I was able to choose which faculty member I wanted to work with,” Lomakova said. “Of all the faculty members who presented their research to the honors students, Dr. Riggs’ research in cellular immunology piqued my interest the most. I was instantly drawn to his discussion on the aspects of immune system regulation, and how it relates to cancer.”
Lomakova has already started working in the lab with Riggs and looks to expand her studies.
“I’m excited to work with Dr. Riggs on EPO suppression of the immunity because this opportunity will give me an early first-hand experience with the research process and a greater insight into the vast field of immunology,” Lomakova said.
Being involved with this research will be key to students’ future possibilities, according to Riggs.
“It allows our students to be exposed to biomedical research,” he said. “It sets them up for their next job or possibly grad school. What happens with students here plays a huge role in placing them post-Rider.”
He mentioned that one of his previous students got a position at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and another student is getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology at Princeton.
“Dozens of students are benefiting from all the work that the faculty is doing in the biology department,” Riggs said. “Rider has really provided a supportive environment.”