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Behrens award recipient explores colon cancer inside mini-guts

amber habowski
Jessica Flesher
Amber Habowski, shown here mentoring Kyle Krueger, is the program coordinator for the UC Irvine Cancer Research Institute's Youth Science Fellowship Program for Orange County high school students.

Her research could lead to better diagnosis and treatment

Amber Habowski epitomizes the well-rounded individual Orange County philanthropist Stanley Behrens had in mind when he established the Stanley Behrens Fellows in Medicine award.

She pursues ambitious career goals in cancer research and academia and places a high priority on mentoring undergraduates and high school students in order to encourage more participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

The fourth-year doctoral student serves as program coordinator for the UC Irvine Cancer Research Institute’s Youth Science Fellowship Program for Orange County high school students, judges entries at district and regional student science fairs, and still finds time for a competitive game of soccer.

Shedding light on cancer's machinery

Naturally, Habowski also spends many hours in the lab of Marian Waterman, PhD, professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics and director of the Cancer Research Institute, exploring the molecular basis of colon cancer. Her hope is to shed new light on the complex machinery of cancer initiation and find biomarkers that could lead to better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

This work was a primary consideration in Habowski’s selection as recipient of the 2017 Behrens award, which requires engagement in novel translational research with the potential to advance human well-being or otherwise make a significant impact in the community.

Waterman, Habowski’s graduate advisor, says, “I am impressed and pleased with what Amber has been able to accomplish in the short while she has been at UC Irvine. I am excited to see what she does with her thesis project — so far, it bodes well for exciting new discoveries.”

The power of good mentors

As a teen, Habowski set her sights on medical school. Guided by mentors during her undergraduate years at Seattle Pacific University, she ventured into the world of medical research. She was surprised to find she was more excited by the prospect of exploring molecular mechanisms and their potential to heal than attending medical school. And, she learned something else.

“We need good mentors earlier in life,” Habowski says.

“I spend time volunteering so that I can work with high school students and become the early-stage mentor that I myself didn’t have.  In this way, I hope to promote STEM involvement and higher education as a means to foster a love of science.”

Habowski’s own love of science drives her to look for new and better ways to get answers to her questions.

Growing the 'mini-guts'

Last winter, she spent two weeks at the Hubrecht Institute in The Netherlands, studying under Hans Clevers, PhD, the world-renowned scientist credited with developing methods to grow stem-cell derived human epithelial “mini-organs,” or organoids, from both healthy tissues and those of patients with cancer, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Habowski is among the first UC Irvine researchers to grow normal and tumor human colon organoids, sometimes referred to as mini-guts.

These organoids provide a more authentic three-dimensional model for developing improvements to preclinical patient testing and validating promising new drugs. They give Habowski an alternative to mouse models and the conventional two-dimensional cancer cell line culture format to help unravel the molecular mechanisms of colon cancer.

It will take time and money to collect the necessary normal colon and tumor tissue from consented hospital patients. The high-throughput sequencing and bioinformatics involved in understanding the molecular regulation Habowski studies, alternative RNA splicing and polyadenylation, are also costly. The Behrens award, Habowski says, gives her some latitude in the choices she makes regarding experimental design and evaluation as she moves into the next phase of her work.

“[The Behrens award] has provided support for research and travel, which will allow me to fund some upcoming experiments and be able to share my work with my peers at conferences,” says Habowski.  “This award is playing an enormous role in helping me become a successful researcher and preparing me for my future career and I am beyond thankful for this opportunity.”

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