C of I students research deadly brain cancer

College of Idaho senior Nolan Hill injected the fluid that held glioblastoma cells with adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and set the mixture under the lens of a fluorescent microscope. On his computer screen, he watched in real time as the cells responded to the ATP with an influx of calcium.

As part of Dr. Luke Daniels’ INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) lab, Hill, fellow senior Averey Strong, and College of Western Idaho student David Dunn are researching glioblastoma, a fast-growing type of malignant brain tumor.

“They’ve been looking at it in different ways,” said Daniels, who teaches biology at the C of I. “Glioblastoma is a pretty bad type of brain cancer. It’s uniformly fatal, so there is no cure at all.”

Glioblastoma accounts for about 50 percent of all brain tumors and occurs in adults between the ages of 45 to 70 years old, with approximately 9,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the United States. Patients usually survive less than 15 months following diagnosis and there are no effective long-term treatments for this disease.

In the lab, students test the glioblastoma cells to see how they respond to different chemical signals found in the brain (such as ATP), which would normally inhibit tumor growth, but don’t seem to in glioblastoma

In a bigger sense, they are looking at what makes the cancer cells cancerous; what genes are switched on and off that allow the cells to stick together or invade nearby brain tissue.

Cancer in the brain is different from other cancers. Because of space limitations, tumors can’t just grow out. They have to destroy nearby brain tissue and grow into that space, perhaps by using glutamate.

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter and also one of the main signals the brain uses to communicate. When electrical signals are sent in the brain, there is a gap between cells. Glutamate is sent across that gap, allowing the electrical signal to bridge the gap and continue on to the next cell.

“Glutamate is really toxic in high doses to cells, so the brain regulates it really carefully,” Daniels said. “In our cells, we’re looking at to see if the glioblastoma cells are releasing glutamate to destroy surrounding tissue.”

Dunn, who just finished his sophomore year at CWI, has been working on the glutamate side of the research. He applied to work the summer in Dr. Daniels’ lab to get hands-on experience because of his interest in studying the central nervous system.

“It turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to be,” Dunn said.

He describes the chance to spend a summer of research at the C of I as a great experience, where he's learned how to do everything from taking care of cell cultures to keeping a lab notebook.

“It was really challenging at first, there was a huge learning curve,” Dunn said. “But it was also a good challenge.”

And sharing facilities and knowledge between schools, such as C of I and CWI, is exactly the goal of the INBRE program, which aims to establish a research network among Idaho institutions and increase that network’s capacity, to provide students with research opportunities, and to enhance science and technology knowledge.

For Hill, who has worked in Daniels’ lab since last fall, performing his own independent research has been an experience unlike any other.

“I feel like I’m a lot more capable and a lot more self-driven than I was before this,” he said.

And all three students have the chance at a new discovery that could help combat a particularly deadly form of cancer.

“Any incremental increase in understanding how the cancer could be treated would get you somewhere,” Daniels said. “Anything that would extend life would be meaningful.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit