Yeast Project may aid in cancer research


Mount Mary University’s science department is developing a yeast genetics testing project that could potentially contribute to advancements in cancer research. The project is part of a $300,000 research grant from the National Institute of Health that the department is currently applying for.

Teresa Holzen, assistant professor of biology at Mount Mary, and Cheryl Bailey, dean of the School of Natural and Health Sciences, are spearheading the project. Holzen and Bailey have until the end of June to send in the grant proposal.


PHOTO: SUSAN ARNOLD; NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE                  “That picture is really cool because you can see the spikes on the surface of the cancer cell. Cancer cells with these spikes are usually invasive, meaning they can invade and start dividing in a new organ or area of the body. That’s what it means when a cancer has “spread” or metastasized. Contrast that spikey cancer cell with the white/grey blood cells around it that have smooth surfaces. The black circles in the background are actually holes in the surface. The cells are on top of a surface with microscopic holes.” Dr. Holzen

Why Yeast Cells?

According to Holzen, the study of yeast genetics may help researchers better understand how cells control their cell division.

“When a cell divides it’s a pretty big deal because when it’s out of control it turns into cancer,” Holzen said.

Yeast cells are preferred to animal cells because they are easier to maintain and are similar to human cells – both contain a nucleus and have similar genes involved in cell division. According to Holzen, while yeast cells can divide about every two hours, human cells take 12.

“In general, as long as a yeast cell is kept at a relatively warm temperature (30 degrees Celsius/86 degrees Fahrenheit) and there are sufficient nutrients and oxygen in its environment, the cell will divide once every two hours,” Holzen said. “The media, or the liquid or gel that contains the nutrients that the yeast need to grow, is easy and relatively inexpensive to make in a laboratory.”


Eukaryotic cells divide by mitosis to make an exact replica of themselves. Before a cell divides by mitosis, it needs to make a complete copy of its genome in a process called DNA replication.

If something goes wrong with a cell, checkpoints should stop that cell from dividing, Holzen explained. When a cell becomes cancerous, the DNA gets damaged and as a result the cell will begin to divide uncontrollably.

“If the DNA of a healthy human cell gets damaged, and this cell can’t repair the damage, the cell will undergo apoptosis, which is programmed suicide,” Holzen said. “I’m interested in the factors that help the cell decide it’s okay, or the processes like DNA replication that have to happen in order for a cell to divide.”

If approved, the research would allow for complete student involvement. Holzen is interested in establishing independent study positions for students, where credit hours can be earned through laboratory work.


Holzen and Bailey will be applying to the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Holzen estimated minimally one year before the research would begin on campus, if approved; this would mean overcoming unlikely odds.

“To be honest, it’s really hard to get money the first time around, really hard,” Holzen said. “There’s been huge budget cuts to the National Institute of Health and to other foundations, too, just because of the economy and other things. Right now for the particular award I’m applying for, there’s about a 10 percent success rate.”

A low acceptance rate for the first application is not the only difficult factor involved with the funding. If approved, the $300,000 grant would be distributed over a finite timeframe of three years – and taken back if not spent within that three-year stretch.

“You have this amount of money to spend in this amount of time, and once the time runs out if you have money left over, it’s gone,” Holzen said. “Which is kind of unfortunate, but there’s always that opportunity to reapply.”

Dean Bailey trusts the application process. As a former grant evaluator herself for the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Institute, Bailey said the huge benefit of the application process is that it sets up an easier path for further applications if first rejected.

“We go in knowing it very well may not be funded the first time around, but what you get from that process is your three-year plan of experiments now mapped. Three to five years is mapped out in detail, just by doing the application,” Bailey said.

With the success of the plan, students would get real world research experience. That, Holzen said, is where the real science begins.

“Science isn’t done in a classroom doing one lab once a week, where everything is laid out in front of you, and you read the instructions and do your experiment, and you get a result, and draw a graph about it and that’s that,” Holzen said. “That’s not really how science works in real life.”

Bailey explained how the benefits of this research are equal across the board for Mount Mary students and faculty alike.

“Here’s the opportunity for students to discover new things – that’s an important component of the nature of science,” Bailey said. “To help Dr. Holzen with her interest in moving the research and the knowledge further in this area, the students will gain such a wonderful opportunity from that so it’s win, win.”

If the first application is not accepted, the department has two options: reapply for the grant again, or apply to local foundations for smaller increments. However, Bailey said the most important part of the entire process is the inevitable organization that comes with applying the first time around.

“Just getting a grant together can really help you get the proper team together, the proper thoughts together, and a really good pathway,” Bailey said.


What’s with the feature image?
Two cells of budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae in the process of dividing, magnified 1000 X.

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