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WIU Faculty/Student Collaboration Publishes Research Findings During Pandemic

May 14, 2020

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Editor's Note: This is the 12th in a series of feature stories about Western Illinois University faculty who are adapting and finding unique ways to reach their students during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their students are using the information they learn.

MACOMB, IL – As COVID-19 has pushed college students across the country from in-person classes to online learning, the shift away from campus has given one Western Illinois University professor and two of her students the opportunity to publish their cancer research results, which were completed in campus labs.

Since the pandemic began, WIU Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mette Soendergaard has been working with graduate students Mallika Asar, of Lisle, IL (chemistry), and April Franco, of Aurora, IL (biological sciences), to prepare their research into pancreatic cancer detection for publication in academic journals.

"We have had one article accepted so far with student authors," said Soendergaard. "The title is 'Phage Display Selection, Identification, and Characterization of Novel Pancreatic Cancer Targeting Peptides,' and describes a possible new way of detecting and diagnosing pancreatic cancer."

Through the research, Asar, the lead author of the article, has discovered new peptide molecules that bind to pancreatic cancer. As an undergraduate at Western, Asar and other WIU students previously researched screening methods for ovarian cancer under Soendergaard's guidance.

"Working in the lab during COVID, right before the lockdown, was pretty stressful," said Asar. "We knew we wouldn't have much time left in the lab for a while and we had a lot of work we had to get done before the school year ended. April and I spent a lot of long days, and several late nights, working on our projects so we could finish them up."

Franco and Soendergaard were co-authors with Asar on the research and the article, which was published by the Biomolecules journal May 5. Soendergaard said it was important the students finish their research, because both were graduating and moving on with their education.

"The time right before the Illinois lockdown was definitely very stressful, as many students were working very hard to finish their work in the lab to both graduate on time and publish their research," said Soendergaard. "Several students wish to apply to M.D., Ph.D., and M.D.-Ph.D. programs, and research articles are very important factors in getting accepted to such programs."

The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer to the faculty/student research as lab surfaces had to be sterilized. Asar said door handles, sinks, refrigerators and other lab equipment had to be cleaned before and after they were used. She said the fear the lab would be shut down because of the outbreak led to projects being completed in condensed timelines.

"We were basically the only ones there, along with Mette, so it was pretty easy to keep track of what was sanitized when," said Asar. "The most stressful part was trying to get all of the work done quickly and efficiently, but also properly while following the new lab cleanup protocols. It did take us a bit longer to do each experiment since we had to maintain social distancing and ensure that everything was sanitized."

Asar said she misses spending time in the lab, but the paper publication makes the time worthwhile.

"COVID has put a serious hold on our research for now, but I'm just spending time reading up on literature and working on our current publication," she said "It's a nice time to brush up on the new methods in the field, which keeps me from being sad about not being in the lab."

Before the campus labs were shut down, Soendergaard said students were able to store all of their samples property so the work was not lost. Franco finished up collecting her last data one day before the statewide stay-at-home order.

While Franco was working on the journal article for submission, she was also trying to finish the research for her thesis. For her part of the journal article research, Franco was evaluating the binding affinity and specific binding of the peptides Asar found on pancreatic cancer cells and their effect on pancreatic cancer cell viability.

"It was very stressful because my research project involves the use of cancer cells, which can be difficult to work with," said Franco. "The experience as a whole was very intense, hectic, and it was extremely hard to stay motivated while a global pandemic was currently happening."

Soendergaard said Asar was able to finish some additional research in the lab, so there is sufficient data for a second research article, which they hope to submit later this month. The second article is about improving a current ovarian cancer targeting peptide for better detection of the disease."

This research study is not Soendergaard's first in the cancer cell arena. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, conducting research on ovarian cancer cells in an effort to improve the ability to detect the aggressive cancer earlier. Her graduate and undergraduate students are conducting a variety of ovarian cancer experiments.

Soendergaard is also currently working on a project with WIU Assistant Professor of Agriculture Shelby Henning, which is partially funded by a United States Department of Agriculture grant, to study the cancer prevention qualities of heirloom tomatoes. The research, which also provides opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students, was started in 2018, and was expanded after the $32,000 USDA grant was awarded.

The tomatoes are grown hydroponically, in volcanic rock instead of soil, inside the WIU School of Agriculture greenhouses. Students in Soendergaard's lab then slice and freeze dry the tomatoes once they are mature and harvested. They are then ground into a powder and tested against a variety of solvents.

Both Asar and Franco finished their master's degrees and graduated virtually on Saturday. Asar will work in Soendergaard's laboratory for one more year while she applies to dual MD/Ph.D. programs, with the goal of becoming an oncologist. Franco hopes to go into the research field as a molecular biologist.

To read their journal article, which was published May 5, visit

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