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Mitchell native part of South Dakota State team unraveling how cancer evades immune system

Roh, who completed her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in May 2021 and is now working on a master’s degree in biology and microbiology, began working on the project as a sophomore.

Mitchell native Susan Grabenstein Roh was part of a team of South Dakota State University chemistry researchers that uncovered how cancer cells utilize a simple sugar residue to disguise themselves from the immune system. What they learned will help scientists develop more effective cancer therapeutics.

“We utilized the lens of organic chemistry to understand how cancer cells evade the immune system,” explained assistant chemistry and biochemistry professor Rachel Willand-Charnley.

The project is part of her chemical biology research program, which uses various fields of chemistry to solve biological problems. Her research has applications in biotechnology and biomedicine.

Roh, who completed her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in May 2021 and is now working on a master’s degree in biology and microbiology, began working on the project as a sophomore. Roh’s parents are Heather and Jerry Grabenstein.

“I wanted to work with genetics, so when Dr. Willand-Charnley talked about cell lines with gene knockouts the first day in my organic chemistry class, that piqued my interest in doing research with her group,” Roh said. “I was the first person to sign on (to the project).”

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Willand-Charnley, Roh and doctoral students Mathias Anim and Albert Armoo analyzed what is known as the Sialic acid-Siglec receptor pathway. They found that cancer cells disguise themselves using simple sugar residues to mimic healthy cells, thereby evading the immune system. “This research will allow scientists to build better therapeutics that cleave off the sugars, essentially removing the cancer cells’ sugary costume,” Willand-Charnley said. “It will open avenues for more targeted, effective cancer therapeutics related to glycans.”

Roh is shared first author on an article published in the June 2021 issue of Glycobiology, a peer-reviewed Oxford Academic research journal, detailing their research results. “Even though I was the only undergraduate student working on the project, I had a lot of responsibility. I was able to be shared first author on the paper because I put in an equal amount of the work—that‘s what it took,” Roh said.

Willand-Charnley said, “Undergraduates (in my lab) are treated like graduate students. My expectation is that they will run their research like a graduate student.”

Roh continued, “I found my own papers relating to the topic, read through them and explained why I felt they were relevant and what I learned from them (during the weekly group meetings).” Every three weeks, it was her turn to present her findings to the group—in a professional fashion. In 2019, Roh received the American Chemical Society award for best undergraduate research poster.

In addition to doing research part time during the school year, she also spent two summers working full time on the project. Roh said her undergraduate research in Willand-Charnley’s lab have prepared her well for graduate school.

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