When Alex Lacey’s father was diagnosed with leukemia, it turned her family’s world upside down. Normalcy came to a screeching halt as the family faced expensive medical bills, frequent doctor’s appointments and major changes in family daily life.
“It took a toll, but my parents kept us involved in activities and did their best to keep our schedules normal,” she said. “We were going to be affected no matter what, but they didn’t want the diagnosis to debilitate our family.”
Despite numerous treatments, Lacey’s father passed away when she was 8 years old.
Nineteen years later, she’s doing her part to contribute to the world’s understanding and treatment of cancer. As a toxicology Ph.D. student in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) at Texas A&M University, the recent graduate conducted research on rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), an aggressive type of pediatric cancer.
As a toxicology Ph.D. student in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Alex Lacey '17 conducted research on rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive type of pediatric cancer.
Finding Her Fit
Originally from Southfield, Michigan, Lacey obtained her undergraduate degree in biology from Lake Forest College, a small liberal arts school near Chicago. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but after completing an internship with a neurobiology lab that worked with schizophrenic adolescents, her interest in medical research piqued. “It got my wheels turning, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is something I want to do,’” she said.
During an introduction to Texas A&M during a CVM recruitment weekend, which allows prospective students to visit campus and interview faculty members about their research, Lacey determined the college was right for her. Once admitted, she soon discovered Dr. Stephen Safe on the CVM website. Dubbed “The Father of Toxicology,” Safe conducted founding studies about toxicology and cancer in the 1970s and 1980s. “I badgered him the whole summer about joining his lab team, emailing him again and again so he wouldn’t forget about me!” Lacey laughed.
Fortunately, she received research funding that prompted Safe to invite her to the team. In addition to the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Lechner Scholarship, funded through the Texas A&M Foundation, she was the recipient of the CVM’s Diversity Fellowship and the Texas A&M Toxicology Regent Scholarship. Combined, these awards equaled a full ride, which allowed her to pursue graduate studies without financial worry and instead focus on discovering technologies that can dramatically impact humanity.
“The CVM provided me with the environment and support needed to reach my educational and research goals,” Lacey said. “The opportunities that the college provides for its graduate students are exceptional.”
Drawn to Discovery
In Safe’s toxicology lab, Lacey concentrated on how cancerous cells react to different drugs. She specifically studied RMS, a cancer that affects mostly young children and adolescents in the form of muscle cell tumors.
“The cancer can appear in any muscle group, but primarily affects the head and neck area,” she said. “RMS can also develop in limbs such as the elbow and knee joints, or appear in the groin area as testicular, vaginal or bladder tumors. The first step is surgery, but since patients affected by RMS are typically quite young, they can suffer disfigurements if the tumor is large enough and significant damage occurs under the skin.”
Doctors and scientists do not know what causes RMS, but through research, they can observe how normal cells become cancerous due to changes in DNA. Lacey investigated the molecular mechanisms surrounding the role of one particular nuclear receptor, NR4A1, which causes the formation of tumors in RMS as well as in breast, lung and pancreatic cancer. She hopes to identify therapies to stop the growth of cancer.
In the toxicology lab, Lacey concentrated on how cancerous cells react to different drugs. Her father's battle with cancer inspired her research goals.
“I don’t understand what it’s like to have cancer as a child, but I have experienced first-hand how one’s childhood can be completely altered by cancer, and what a huge impact it has on a family,” she said.
Lacey primarily experimented in protein and gene expression, using techniques such as polymerase chain reaction. Researchers take cancer cells, culture them in a dish and treat them with a potential drug. Then, they remove the cells and study the protein and gene expressions to determine if any changes took place. The goal is to eliminate cancerous cells and preserve healthy cells.
“Alex was very productive in her research, and we hope that her results will be useful in the future for developing new treatments for RMS,” said Dr. Safe.
Since cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, the experiments underway in Safe’s lab are critical to further understanding the disease and our potential to combat it. The innovative research taking place at the CVM will eventually lead to making anti-cancer agents available for clinical trials, so that they could potentially be used as an emerging therapy, not only for RMS, but also to treat breast, colon, pancreatic and lung cancers.
Before her graduate education ended in August, Lacey successfully defended her thesis and accepted a toxicologist position at Shell Global in Houston. “My father and the legacy he left drove me to the field I’m in,” she said. “That personal, family connection is why I feel so tied to this research.”