As a graduate student in the Division of Biological Sciences, William Donald Thomas works in the area of molecular and protein biology. Specifically, his research—with mentor George P. Smith in the Phage Display Lab seeks to find peptides that bind to breast cancer cells in hopes of developing better diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
Thomas explains: “Right now, the imaging and treatment of cancer is pretty nonspecific. The hope is that we can make or discover molecules that are specific to cancer, because the current treatment for cancer basically just targets cells that grow fast and, in doing so, they make people sick. The whole motivation is to find something that can specifically target cancer cells, in this case, breast cancer cells.” As such, Thomas’ research involves cloning different proteins and selecting a protein that is over-expressed in breast cancer cells called ErbB2.
A typical week for Thomas actually begins the previous week, meeting with his adviser, planning experiments, and discussing problems encountered. “Right now my goal is to find peptides that bind to cancer cells, but that is going to take a lot of little steps. A lot of proteins are going to have to be made and designed. I spend a fair amount of time designing the experiments and then doing them.” When the experiments don’t work, Thomas must re-design them. “In a nutshell, I play with proteins all day,” he jokes. “Fundamentally, I’m studying protein to protein interactions, so that I can find things that could be used to bind breast cancer cells.”
“Cancer treatment, as it stands now, is like going at a very particular problem with a sledge hammer, when we need something more fine-tuned like a scalpel. Otherwise, we are making the patient sick by indiscriminately killing cells; the pain endured from cancer treatments can take its toll. We want to be able to increase the patient’s health and not decrease the quality of life.”