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A step closer to understanding cancer and other diseases

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About a year ago, we learned students in Jason Rawlings’s lab were honored at a conference with the Council Award, given to the most outstanding graduate student poster. That’s right—graduate poster. At the 53rd Midwinter Conference of Immunologists in Asilomar, Calif., Rawlings’ team of undergrads bested graduate students from Duke, UCLA, Stanford, NYU and other prestigious universities to claim the prize.

But wait, there’s more. The paper based on the same research and authored by Kellie Bingham ’14, Megan Lee ’15, Jenna Meredith ’15, Taylor Mitchell ’15, and Professor Rawlings was submitted to a high-impact journal in the world of immunology, Molecular Immunology. A mouthful, the paper “Calcium mobilization is both required and sufficient for initiating chromatin decondensation during activation of peripheral T-cells” was first published online in December, followed by the print version in February.

What makes the publication in Molecular Immunology especially significant is that it’s the first time in at least a year that a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI) has been represented in the journal, and, says Rawlings, “To my knowledge, it is the highest impact cell/molecular biology paper ever published in the history of our department where all of the work was done at Furman.” [Rawlings explains there have been collaborative papers published in heavy-hitting journals where most of the work was done by non-Furman students at research universities.]

Rawlings explains T-lymphocytes (or T-cells) in the immune system are critical for a proper response to a foreign pathogen. He says, “In a normal response, T-cells must first get activated, and once they do, they gain the ability to proliferate, which is why your lymph nodes swell when you are sick.”

In the paper, the student scientists investigated the molecular machinations that control chromatin decondensation—the trigger for T-cell activation. In the lab, they manipulated intracellular calcium to spur T-cells to be ‘fruitful and multiply.’ Says Rawlings, “Control of T-cell proliferation is absolutely essential—if it’s not controlled properly, catastrophic disease states can result. Uncontrolled proliferation leads to cancer. If the wrong T-cells propagate the result is autoimmunity . . . and if T-cells fail to multiply altogether, the outcome is immunodeficiency. Understanding the mechanism that controls proliferation of T-cells could lead to novel approaches to treat all of these disease states.”

When asked about her reaction to the news of the publication, Mitchell, speaking for the team, says, “I think we’ve all been smiling ear to ear since we found out. We’ve had so many opportunities —from presenting our research at the Midwinter Conference for Immunologists in California, and at Furman Engaged, to being published as undergraduate students in Molecular Immunology. We wouldn’t have made this far without the support and training from Dr. Rawlings. It’s such an honor, and we don’t take it lightly.”

Dr. Rawlings is assistant professor of biology at Furman. See the abstract for the work in Molecular Immunology.

 

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