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Awards and Honors

Santa Cruz Cancer Benefit Group funds cancer research fellowship

By Tim Stephens

The Santa Cruz Cancer Benefit Group (SCCBG) has established a new fellowship to support cancer research at UCSC. The SCCBG Research Fellowship is an annual award of $10,000 to support a UCSC graduate student or postdoctoral researcher engaged in cancer-related research.

Photo of Jennifer Compton

Jennifer Compton
Photo: Tim Stephens

The group awarded the first SCCBG Research Fellowship to Jennifer Compton, a postdoctoral researcher studying genetic factors involved in breast cancer. The fellowship will support Compton's work with Gary Silberstein, a research scientist in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology.

The SCCBG, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last spring, raises funds for distribution to local cancer support groups and cancer research organizations. The new award represents the group's first gift to UCSC, where scientists are engaged in a broad range of cancer-related research projects. These include studies of the molecular mechanisms and genetic factors involved in cancer, as well as efforts to identify and synthesize new cancer-fighting compounds.

"A lot of people in our group were not even aware that UCSC is involved in cancer research. We are very excited about supporting this important research in our local area," said SCCBG director Jeni Brill.

Cancer research at UCSC is primarily sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and other major organizations such as the American Cancer Society. Silberstein, for example, has grants from the National Cancer Institute to support his research on genes involved in breast cancer.

The project that Compton will work on with funding from the SCCBG fellowship represents an important new direction for his research, Silberstein said. "This award enables us to launch a new area of research in our lab, so it's very important for us," he said.

Compton will be studying the "breast cancer predisposition gene" known as BRCA1. Mutations in this gene greatly increase the risk of breast cancer. Compton's research is aimed at understanding the normal role of BRCA1 in mammary tissue and the role of hormones in regulating the gene's activity.

"It is important to study the normal development of mammary tissue so that we can better understand what goes wrong in breast cancer," Silberstein said. "This is the kind of basic research that can lay the foundation for advances in cancer therapy."

Compton attended UCSC as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, earning B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in molecular, cell, and developmental biology. Since completing her Ph.D. in 2003, she has done postdoctoral research with chemistry professor Phillip Crews. Crews's laboratory is exploring the pharmacological potential of compounds derived from marine sponges and other marine organisms. Some of the novel compounds they have isolated have shown promise as potential cancer therapies. Other researchers in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry are working to synthesize these natural compounds.

"The search for new drugs and the effort to understand the molecular mechanisms that lead to cancer are complementary approaches that are both important," Compton said. "I feel fortunate to be getting experience doing both."

Although researchers at UCSC do not conduct clinical studies involving patients, the campus is active in many areas of basic biomedical research. UCSC received more than $14 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health last year, including grants to researchers in the Departments of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Environmental Toxicology, and Biomolecular Engineering.

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