Campus: Northridge -- August 9, 2006

CSUN Biology Professor and Lab Continue Cancer Research with the Aid of NIH Grant

Steven Oppenheimer, professor in Cal State Northridge's biology department since 1971, has only gained enthusiasm for his discipline throughout the years. That enthusiasm can be contagious, but it has also brought him recognition.

Oppenheimer has recently been awarded a four year grant totaling over $400,000 by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its Support of Continuous Research Excellence program.

Oppenheimer, director of CSUN's Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology, was awarded the grant for his project, "Mechanisms of Adhesive Interactions." His research focuses on improper cell adhesion as a catalyst for the spread of cancer. Of particular interest is Oppenheimer's use of sea urchins as a model system for human cells.

"NIH has designated sea urchins as a model system because the molecular basis of cell adhesion in sea urchins is very similar to that of humans," Oppenheimer said. "At least 25 major discoveries have been made using sea urchins which have later been found to have critical importance in humans."

Oppenheimer, along with his students, hope to lead to a 26th development: adhesive control mechanisms of importance in human disease, such as how cancer spreads.

"Our focus is on one very clear adhesive interaction," he said. "We are looking specifically at the molecular basis of the interaction between the tip of the advancing gut with the roof of the blastocoel (embryonic cavity.) Identifying the molecular basis of this specific interaction in this easily studied organism, will help us better understand mechanisms of adhesive interactions in humans and reasons for defective interactions in diseases such as cancer."

Oppenheimer and his students conduct their research by injecting potassium chloride into sea urchins to extrude the sperm and the eggs. After 24 hours and fertilization, the gastrulation stage of embryonic development occurs. A simple ball-shaped embryo begins to take the form of an organism through a process involving adhesive interactions. Oppenheimer and his students are focusing on this stage.

Though Oppenheimer acts as director of his lab, he acknowledges that it is through the work of his numerous students that he was able to obtain the grant.

"What makes this lab stand out is its productivity," said Oppenheimer. "We have a large number of undergrad and graduate students doing research, which adds to our productivity."

The high number of students who conduct research in Oppenheimer's lab creates a win-win situation, producing a high volume of productivity, as well as giving students invaluable lab time.

"CSUN is continually in the top 10 of over 500 schools listed by the National Science Foundation who have graduates in the sciences and social sciences who go on for their PhDs," said Oppenheimer. "That's no accident. The reason for that is because we offer so many research experiences for undergraduate students. Most of the focus is on the doctoral students in primarily research universities. For undergraduates to get research experience is very difficult."

This joint effort between professor and students has culminated in 297 published peer-reviewed papers and abstracts, which have been co-authored by over 600 students.

One student co-author, Eileen Heinrich, now a graduate student in molecular pathology at UCLA, recalls her time spent in Oppenheimer's lab.

"Working with Dr. O was a fantastic experience for me," Heinrich said. "When things didn't go right with an experiment he always told me 'If it worked the first time, you wouldn't learn anything.'"

Incorporating research into teaching keeps Oppenheimer's lab bustling and his class roster full. "Any student that comes to me and is interested, I will find a spot for him there," he said.

Contact: Erin Richard, Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130

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