Graduate STEM Fellow Profile

Emily Brooks

Project Title: CLIMB: Cornell's Learning Initiative in Medicine and Bioengineering
Thesis: The role of adipose-derived stem cells in breast tumorigenesis
College/University: Cornell University
Research Advisor: Claudia Fischbach-Teschl
Degree Sought: Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering
Department: Biomedical Engineering
Research Focus:
Teaching Partner(s): Ann Phinney-Foreman

Description of Research

Cancer research is often conducted to evaluate how genetic changes to cells lead to the initiation and growth of tumors. In our lab, we focus much more on understanding how the location of the tumor (or the tumor microenvironment) impacts tumor development. The mammary tissue surrounding breast tumors is largely made up of adipose (or fat) tissue which contains a large population of stem cells. I’m working to understand how these stem cells may contribute to tumorigenesis. Certain signals within the tumor microenvironment differ from the normal adipose tissue that these cells are naturally found within, and understanding how these signals impact the cells may illuminate the role these cells play in breast tumorigenesis. Given that the stiffness of the adipose and tumor tissues differ, and that changes in mechanical stimuli, such as the modulus of an extracellular matrix (ECM), have been shown to influence cell behavior, it would follow that the adipose derived stem cells (ASCs) within the tumor microenvironment may have altered cell function. In addition to mechanical cues from the tumor, chemical cues from breast tumor cells including angiogenic factor secretions as well as other chemokines, may also lead to changes in the behavior of ASCs. Improving our understanding of the role which ASCs play in breast tumor growth will enable a better appreciation of the disease that is diagnosed in hundreds of thousands of women each year in the USA. With this new perspective on breast cancer we hope to reveal mechanisms that the disease utilizes which can be exploited to improve cancer therapeutics.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience

Cells are able to signal and receive signals via various routes (e.g. cell-cell interactions, cell-ECM interactions, etc.). In order to gain a better understanding of how the microenvironment within which a cell lives impacts its function, we will explore various parts of the microenvironment. More specifically, we will look at how cell-ECM interactions can be mimicked when culturing cells outside the body using alginate hydrogels. Students will learn how to crosslink polymers to produce hydrogels and mechanisms to vary the characteristics of these gels to mimic tissue characteristics. To improve our understanding of how chemical cues that cells secrete are able to reach and signal other cells, we will investigate diffusion of dyes through various sized channels to deduce how signals are transmitted through the vasculature system. All of these activities will improve student’s comprehension of cell interactions with their surroundings and how we are able to use biomedical engineering approaches to model these interactions and gain a better understanding of living systems.