Stern College Biology Professors Alyssa Schuck and Jeffrey Weisburg Engage Students in Novel Cancer Research

What’s in an apple? Maybe, just maybe, the secret to kicking cancer.

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Dr. Jeffrey Weisburg and Dr. Alyssa Schuck

According to research by Dr. Alyssa Schuck and Dr. Jeffrey Weisburg, Doris Kukin Chair in Molecular Biology—both clinical assistant professors of biology at Stern College for Women, apples, along with cranberry juice, pomegranates, and green and black tea, contain common cancer-fighting compounds: nutraceutical polyphenols. Found in natural foods and plants, these polyphenolic extracts were proven by Weisburg’s and Schuck’s studies to be selectively toxic to cancer cells, leaving normal cells unaffected.

“We all know that a lot of drugs used to treat cancer have harmful side effects that damage normal tissue,” said Schuck. “Unlike many other studies, which only test the effects of chemicals on cancer cells, we take care to test the effects of the extracts on normal cells. Eventually, this could potentially lead to the development of a cancer therapy that would not negatively impact healthy, normal cells to the same extent as conventional chemotherapeutic agents. Our other goal is to determine the mechanism that enables these natural products to kill cancer cells.”

“Our work could also be significant in understanding some of the benefits of a healthy diet,” added Weisburg. “Many health benefits have been attributed to natural products and our work further elucidates how those products contribute to cancer prevention.”

To test the mechanisms that allow nutraceuticals to target cancer cells exclusively, Schuck and Weisburg use an in vitro culture system, working with human cells derived from the oral cavity to study the effects of natural extracts containing nutraceuticals. The idea to use cells from the mouth came from Dr. Harvey Babich, chair of the biology department at Stern College, who reasoned that because the research was testing the effects of natural products which most people consume orally, it would be important to study the impact of those products on the part of the body that first encounters them in their original state, before they can be metabolized or diluted.

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Weisburg supervises a student researcher.

Weisburg and Schuck make a great team: their individual areas of expertise, human physiology and immunology for Weisburg and protein analyses and microbiology for Schuck, enable them to tackle nutraceuticals from multiple angles at the same time. Working together with Babich, as well as with Dr. Harriet Zuckerbraun, clinical associate professor of biology at SternCollege, the two found that each of the natural extracts tested was more toxic to cancer cells than to normal cells, but their methods of killing cancer cells differed. Some extracts caused oxidative stress in cancer cells, leading to their death; other nutraceuticals caused cancer cell death by an alternate mechanism, which is likely to be direct interactions between the extract’s molecules and components of cellular signaling pathways.

Students are a vital part of Weisburg’s and Schuck’s research, working alongside them in the lab to gain hands-on experience with everything from cultivating the cells to performing toxicity tests.

“I had a terrific experience at Stern as a student, and I think the mentoring I experienced there prompted me to go down the career path I chose,” said Schuck, who graduated from Stern College in 1999 before pursuing a PhD at New York University’s Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. “Now that I’m teaching at Stern, I try to do the same things for students. We work with students very individually in the lab, and it’s rewarding to really get to know them and see them succeed in accomplishing their goals and moving on to graduate and professional school.”

Schuck and Weisburg are dedicated to helping students pursue those goals, including them not only in laboratory research but also as co-authors in their published work. In 2013, they published three papers in peer-reviewed journals together with 13 Stern College students and alumni. Weisburg and Schuck also sent students to present their research at the American Chemical Society Annual Meeting and the Annual Meeting of the Society for In Vitro Biology.

For Talia Felman and Rebecca Garber, two students hoping to pursue medical school after graduation, the faculty mentorship and support they received in Weisburg and Schuck’s labs have been invaluable.

“Dr. Weisburg’s patience and concern for his students is incredible—he is easygoing and able to explain complex concepts in creative ways to help us fully understand everything we learn from him,” said Felman. “In Dr. Weisburg’s lab, I learned not only how to handle cells, but the kinds of obstacles to look out for in different kinds of experiments and problem-solving skills to cope with them. I also gained an appreciation for the importance of collaboration in scientific research.”

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Weisburg, left, and Schuck, right, work with student researchers.

“When I say that Dr. Schuck is my mentor, I don’t just mean that I go to her and ask her what classes to take or for suggestions for summer research—I mean that she is someone I truly respect, not only for her intellect and professionalism, but also for her warmth and kindness,” said Garber. “Every time we meet, I do something different and learn about different aspects of the project. As a result, by the time the semester is over, I’ll know not only how to perform every step required in the experiment, but also how to reproduce it.”

According to Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College, the close mentorship students receive is a perfect example of the nurturing environment that scientific study at Stern provides.

“Doctors Alyssa Schuck and Jeffrey Weisburg are dedicated to teaching, research and mentoring students,” she said. “This combination is what makes our biology department such a powerful incubator for developing women scientists. And their enthusiasm is reflected in the energy that characterizes the entire department, students and faculty alike.”