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story.lead_photo.caption University of Missouri graduate student Rachel Olson talks about her lab's work studying the plague — yes, "that plague." Olson was one of several young scientists to present Saturday during Science on Wheels' stop at Serenity Valley Winery. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

MILLERSBURG — Evidently, science and wine is a potent mixture.

Science on Wheels, an outreach program of the University of Missouri, made a stop Saturday afternoon at Serenity Valley Winery. Six graduate student scientists gave brief presentations on the research they're conducting.

The goal, Science on Wheels coordinating committee member Levi Storks said, is to give community members in rural areas near Mizzou a chance to interact with scientists. Participants are given training in communicating tough scientific concepts in a way anyone can understand.

Judging by the fascinated audience, the training paid off.

"Who here knows someone who's been impacted by breast cancer?" biochemist Allie Bogner asked.

Every hand in the room went up.

"My mother's a cancer survivor," Bogner said. "Her story inspired me to find out about what was happening in her body."

Bogner's research aims to find a way to slow down the creation of cancer cells. As she explained, cells turn cancerous when they're overactive and divide out of control or produce a particular cellular product too quickly.

Cancer cells rely on particular compounds to grow, divide and produce proteins. Bogner is trying to create a compound that looks like a specific compound breast cancer needs but is slightly different, in a way that makes it useless to the cancer cell. That, in turn, should slow down the cancer cell — like throwing a wrench in the works at a factory.

That research is still in its early phases. Bogner is testing different compounds outside cells and, if one seems to work well, she will begin testing them on cancer cells outside the body.

"I can design bacteria to produce the proteins I want, and it's fast, cheap and safe," she said.

She added she wants to ensure the compound she designs won't be harmful to the body.

Bogner wasn't the only young scientist taking aim at cancer. David Porciani, a graduate student from Italy, is studying a new way to deliver cancer-killing drugs.

All cells have channels they use to take in the nutrients and molecules needed. Some of those channels are opened using a mechanism that's kind of like a lock and key. A specific protein slots into place on the cell's surface to open the channel.

"In molecular biology, shape means function," Porciani said. "Proteins interact because they have complimentary shapes."

The lab Porciani works in is hoping to spot "locks" that only cancer cells have and design molecular "keys" that will open those locks so drugs can slip inside. Unlike conventional cancer treatments, which may harm healthy cells, this could provide a way to kill off only cancerous cells.

Kevin Muñoz is also looking at how to recognize cells. His lab is studying autoimmune diseases. In these diseases, cells called T-cells, which normally deploy to fight off dangerous invaders to the body, get confused and attack the body's own cells instead.

"That attack happens mainly due to a miscommunication," Muñoz said. "We want to know what message is going wrong and treating the cells as enemies."

Muñoz theorizes certain proteins or other molecules in cells may be changing shape in a way that confuses the immune system, triggering it to treat the cells as invaders.

Graduate student Rachel Olson's focus is on another deadly disease — one that far fewer people encounter today than cancer.

"I work on the plague," Olson said. "Yes, that plague. The medieval one."

Over the last 10 years, cases of the plague have become more common, particularly in Madagascar. And it gets even scarier.

The plague is caused by a particular bacteria, and that bacteria is adapting to resist antibiotics.

As it turns out, it's not always the bacteria that kills plague victims.

"Your own immune system over-responds and kills you," Olson said.

It's like burning down our house to kill a spider.

Among other things, her lab is looking at ways to alter the immune response of lab animals so they no longer respond so strongly to the plague, but can still fight off the disease and survive. The lab is also looking into alternative treatments for the plague beyond traditional antibiotics.

Rather than looking toward diseases, Alessandra Cecchini is looking at the way muscles repair themselves.

Most of the body's cells only have one nucleus — a structure within the cell that holds its genetic material. In skeletal muscles (muscles that attach to bone), individual cells fuse together to form giant cells with multiple nuclei.

Cecchini is trying to understand how new muscle cells know how to shape themselves into the correct structures.

"You need muscles to do everything, and I just think it's freaking awesome," she said.

One student's research looks beyond the body — way, way beyond.

Jordyn Lucas's research is funded by NASA. She's trying to understand what early life — before people, plants, and even bacteria — might have looked like.

Many people are familiar with DNA, the double-stranded molecule that carries genetic information. However, the double helix might be too complicated a molecule for the earliest life. Her lab is pondering whether early life might have used RNA, a similar molecule with only one strand, instead.

"We want to understand what it might have looked like on earth, so we can recognize early life elsewhere, on other planets," she said.

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