Student research published in esteemed journal

Student research published in internationally esteemed journal

Jan. 29, 2019

Dr. Angelia Gibson, chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and associate professor of chemistry, and student researchers Victoria Deal ’19 and Cheyanne Croft ’19 were coauthors on an article published in the prestigious journal, Blood, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). The weekly journal, published by the American Society of Hematology, is ranked 27th out of 12,000 indexed scholarly journals.

Maryville College first became involved with the research conducted in the University of Puerto Rico three years ago when Gibson attended a workshop on mitochondrial biochemistry sponsored by Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Communities of Scholars and funded by the National Science Foundation. The workshop brought together small groups of faculty to learn new lab techniques and provided a unique format to exchange ideas and discuss professional development opportunities. She became acquainted with Dr. A. Valance Washington and his lab in the Department of Biology at UPR, which discovered a protein known as TLT-1, found on the surface of platelets in human blood. Washington’s research has focused on determining the purpose of TLT-1, and he led the project that involved collaborators from Universidad de Central Caribe in Puerto Rico, Bloodworks Northwest Research Institute in Seattle, Wash., and the University of Utah.

Gibson was familiar with techniques used in Washington’s lab, and so they began bouncing around ideas for collaboration.

“[Washington’s] lab had more projects than students had time to do, and I had students who were looking for projects, and so we decided to try to do a project,” Gibson said. “We had students who cloned an antibody from a single-chain fragment previously characterized by Washington’s team. Dr. Washington invited the students to come spend the summer [in Puerto Rico]. One of them went. And from there, as science happens, more projects came along.”

Deal, a biology major, was the student who spent 10 weeks in Puerto Rico during the summer of 2017, conducting research. The original plan was for Deal to produce the cloned antibody in mammalian cells and determine if it blocked the activity of TLT-1 in the same way as the single-chain fragment. Previous work from Washington’s lab had shown that while TLT-1 is needed to regulate blood clot formation, it is present at higher levels and is correlated with mortality in some disease conditions. Humanized antibodies, like the one the students had cloned, help researchers study the role of target molecules in human samples and in some cases can be developed as therapies for disease.

As is common in science, Deal’s original project didn’t progress as quickly as planned because of slow-growing cells, so Washington offered her the opportunity to work with Dr. Jessica Morales-Ortiz, who was completing her Ph.D. in his laboratory. One of Morales-Ortiz’s projects focused on a condition called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), believed to be connected with the release of TLT-1 into the blood. Using clinical data and samples from ARDS patients, Deal went to work at organizing and analyzing the data that would eventually find its way in the esteemed journal, Blood.

“I picked up what started out as a side project but sort of became its own main project with ARDS and identifying TLT-1 in our patient samples,” Deal explained. “The National Heart and Lung Institute gave us all these patient profiles with randomized codes, and so we were able match it up and spot their mortalities and morbidities. We found that if we had high TLT-1 numbers [in ARDS patients], we also had high morbidity and mortality.”

By the end of her summer in Puerto Rico, Deal (along with another student in Washington’s lab, Nahomy Ledesma) had finished measuring TLT-1 concentrations in the majority of the 1,200 samples. Shortly after completing her work abroad, Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, devastating the University of Puerto Rico campus and ruining many lab samples due to power outages. Because she succeeded in measuring so many ARDS samples just weeks before the hurricane, Deal may have salvaged an important component of a project the Washington lab had been studying for years. Her original “side project” is now published in Blood.

Croft, a senior biochemistry and management double-major, also played a significant role in the research published in the journal. While Deal was primarily responsible for measuring TLT-1 levels in the samples, Croft assisted the large research team with analysis once the data was collected.

“The other coauthors did a lot of the lab components of [the publication], but I did research differently from what others had done on the TLT-1,” Croft said. “Instead of doing the lab work, I did a statistical analysis and analyzed how we could use TLT-1 as a clinical predictor in clinical outcomes for patients with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.”

Croft spent the entire month of January 2018 organizing clinical data and conducting statistical analysis on all of the measured samples using Excel and a lab software called SPSS.

Croft and Deal both agree that each of their roles in this research project have vastly influenced their medical perspectives and redirected their anticipated career paths. The knowledge that their research as undergraduates has serious implications and utmost importance in the modern world of medicine has driven them toward careers in medical research.

“Starting the whole project was my first experience with research at all, and so I learned that I liked research from the very first project, and then getting more into looking at ARDS made me realize that I liked human medicine,” Deal said. “Originally I came into Maryville College wanting to be a veterinarian, but then I learned more about human diseases and different ways to apply the research, and it made me realize I want to do research and human medicine.”

The journal article in Blood, titled “Platelet Derived TLT-1 is a Prognostic Indicator in ALI/ARDS and Prevents Tissue Damage in the Lungs in a Mouse model,” is available for reading online.

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”