Ambition in a beaker

Chico State student-professor team taking novel approach to developing possible cancer treatment

Natalie Holmberg-Douglas, 21, a senior double-majoring in biochemistry and animal sciences, spends long hours in the lab each week.

Natalie Holmberg-Douglas, 21, a senior double-majoring in biochemistry and animal sciences, spends long hours in the lab each week.

Photo by Howard Hardee

To many Chico State students, Halloween isn’t a time for scholarly pursuits—particularly when it lands on a Friday.

Consider 21-year-old Natalie Holmberg-Douglas an outlier, then. For five hours on that holiday of ill repute, she was on the third floor of the physical sciences building, a pirate costume underneath her white lab coat as she monitored a slow chemical reaction in a Petri dish.

So it’s been every Friday this semester (presumably minus the pirate getup). Holmberg-Douglas, a senior double-majoring in biochemistry and animal sciences, and her supervising professor, Carolynn Arpin, have been investigating a protein associated with various forms of cancer. Their hope is that effectively inhibiting that protein—known as Grb7—will, years from now, lead to the development of a drug that kills cancer cells.

The research is “very tedious,” Holmberg-Douglas said during a recent interview. “I went about six weeks where I couldn’t get the reaction to go very far, but just a few weeks ago we got a pretty good result. It’s rewarding when it finally starts to work.”

Raised in Penn Valley, Holmberg-Douglas rode horses and sheared sheep at the county fair as a child. So, while her research could ultimately help humans, her career goal is to help animals.

Originally intending to become a clinical veterinarian, she enrolled in Chico State’s agriculture program. Then she took a general chemistry class. “I was a super-nerd and stayed for the entire three hours of lab, even if I finished in an hour,” she laughed. “My professor was like, ‘If you like chemistry this much, you should major in it.’ I thought about it all summer, and I decided to do it.”

Pursuing her two passions has slightly altered the career she envisions for herself. Now, she’d like to become a research veterinarian, rather than a practicing vet, so she can work in a lab.

That particular mix of interests is unusual, Arpin said during an interview in her office. “I don’t know anyone, really, who has interest in both chemistry and agriculture the way she does with animal science,” she reflected. “That interdisciplinary role is unique.”

Holmberg-Douglas is following her professor’s lead by researching the protein Grb7. Arpin pursued similar projects while earning her post-doctorate degree from the University of Toronto, and some of the patents she established are already entering clinical trials. After being awarded a research grant at Chico State, the pair worked together full time for 10 weeks last summer, and have continued into this semester, albeit only once a week.

As Arpin explained, the research itself is novel because the approach of inhibiting Grb7 has been shunned by the pharmaceutical industry.

“There’s just not much known about this protein,” she said. “They know that it’s active in cancer, they know there’s a ton of it, but they don’t know how that promotes cancer. Drug companies are less willing to put in the risk. They have all the time and resources; it just hasn’t been shown that this will make them a billion dollars.

“That’s why it’s a perfect idea for academia.”

Previous studies on mice have shown that inhibiting Grb7 combats cancer cell migration and delays the onset of tumors. Problem is, the molecule those researchers developed inhibited the protein, but not strongly enough for a marketable drug. “My molecule is based on theirs,” Holmberg-Douglas said. “I’m trying to make it stronger and better.”

That amounts to many hours spent over beakers and vials attempting to synthesize molecules. The biggest obstacle so far, Holmberg-Douglas said, is she’s gotten the product she wants but has wasted too much starting material in the process, which would prevent large-scale production.

“I’ve been getting really poor yields, so I’m trying to make my reaction work better—mixing up the order, more of one thing, less of another,” she said. “The goal is to get 100 percent yield. That would be super awesome! I’m crossing my fingers.”

In recent weeks, she’s regularly achieved a 50 percent yield, and got as high as 78 percent. “But I haven’t been able to replicate that,” she said. “You can’t count it as valid information if you can’t replicate it.”

Working only once a week has made for frustratingly slow progress, Holmberg-Douglas said. She’s looking forward to winter break, when she’ll be able to devote more time to the project. If the results are strong, she and Arpin will write a paper on their research and hope the drug industry runs with it.

“I’m extremely hopeful we can find something,” Arpin said. “It’s a little far down the road at this point, but I’m still very optimistic.”

Meanwhile, Holmberg-Douglas will continue participating in a dizzying number of extracurricular clubs and committees. Most notably, she serves as vice president of the Chemistry Club, tutors agriculture students in chemistry and hosts the Future Farmers of America Forestry Day, in which high school students visit the campus and take competency tests related to the field.

In September, she earned the California State University system’s highest distinction for students—the CSU Trustee Award for Outstanding Achievement, which includes a $6,000 scholarship. On top of all that, she’s maintained a 3.8 GPA.

Holmberg-Douglas is on track for graduation in spring of 2016, and has her eye on graduate school at UC Davis or University of Colorado, Fort Collins. She hopes to earn a doctorate of veterinary medicine and, eventually, a Ph.D. in a biomedical field.

And it’s safe to say her ambitions come from the right place.

“I like to think that, someday, I’ll be able to contribute to our scientific knowledge,” she said, “to discover something new.”