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NCCU Professor and Student Win Cancer Research Awards

Dr. Antonio Baines
Published: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A biology professor and an undergraduate student at North Carolina Central University have received awards for their cancer research from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). They will make presentations about their findings at the association’s annual meeting April 2–6 in Orlando, Fla.

The faculty member being honored is Antonio T. Baines, an assistant professor of biology with a joint appointment in the cancer program at NCCU’s Julius L. Chambers Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (BBRI). His award recognizes his research aimed at identifying specific molecules within cells that are involved in the growth of tumors in the pancreas and are potential targets for new drugs to disrupt the growth. He is a recipient of AACR’s Minority-Serving Institution Faculty Scholar Award. The awards go to scientists at historically black colleges and universities and other institutions with high percentages of minority students.

The student is Melony Ochieng, a junior with a double major in pharmaceutical science and chemistry. In research supervised by Darlene K. Taylor, assistant professor of chemistry, Ochieng is developing a method for delivering a breast cancer drug in a way that reduces adverse side effects. Her award is the AACR – Thomas J. Bardos Award Science Education Award for Undergraduate Students.

Baines, who came to North Carolina in 2001 as a postdoctoral fellow at UNC–Chapel Hill, joined the NCCU faculty in 2006. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Norfolk State University in 1995 and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona in 2001.

Baines’ research involves understanding the interactions among proteins and how they control the functions of a cell. The science is complex, but he describes the goal in straightforward terms. “We’re trying to find targets that can be hit with drugs to treat or slow the growth of the cancer,” he says. “Normal cells have a variety of signaling pathways that control what the cell does — grow, divide, release hormones, and so on. They need to be regulated — you want them to turn on and off at certain times. I’m now focusing on one particular target, an enzyme called Pim-kinase that activates other proteins.”

Ochieng is a native of Kenya whose family emigrated to the United States and settled in Durham when she was a child. She and her mentor, Dr. Taylor, are working with a drug called Fulvestrant, which has been proven effective against a common kind of breast cancer but has numerous unpleasant side effects. It is normally injected, but it is not easily absorbed by the body. Ochieng is developing a way to administer the drug via a polymer delivery system, which will increase solubility and improve absorption. That would allow it to be given in smaller doses with fewer side effects. Ochieng and Taylor have obtained a provisional patent for their delivery system.

“I’ve been working on this since I was a freshman,” Ochieng said. “When I graduate, I want to be able to think on my own, to conduct my own research.” After her graduation in May 2012, Ochieng said she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry. She has worked as a research intern the past two summers, at UNC–Chapel Hill after her freshman year and at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, last summer. This summer, she has been accepted for a prestigious internship at the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT.

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