As a kid, Casey Schukow ’17 used to mow lawns in his Saline, Michigan, neighborhood for extra cash. Years later, one of these neighbors, Dr. Tim Frankel, a general surgeon who also works as a laboratory supervisor for the University of Michigan Health System, helped Schukow find a new job: assisting in a pancreatic cancer research project.
At his internship with the University of Michigan Health System, Schukow researched TXNIP, a protein involved in the spreading of pancreatic cancer, and Interleukin-22, a protein which suppresses the cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 40,000 people will die this year from pancreatic cancer in the United States alone. TXNIP, or thioredoxin-interacting protein, drives the metastasis, or spread, of this deadly cancer to other parts of the body.
Frankel directed Schukow to Mirna Perusina Lanfranca, a research scientist responsible for multiple research projects in the University of Michigan laboratories.
One of her projects studied the two proteins, TXNIP and IL-22 involved in the metastasization and suppression of pancreatic cancer. Under Perusina Lanfranca’s guidance, Schukow researched these proteins and then conducted his own experiments.
“Mirna gave a list of terms and a quick run down, and after that point, all of the learning was on me,” Schukow said. “I realized how much I didn’t know about research, cancer, and lab techniques, and this was a better way to learn than having somebody hold your hand through it.”
Jenny Lazarus, who works in the University of Michigan laboratories studying the microenvironment of the pancreas for her residency research fellowship, taught Schukow various methods in the laboratory. Although she helped out, Schukow did most of his research independently, Lazarus said.
“Every day he was in the lab, he was good on his own,” Lazarus said. “He was really good about trying to troubleshoot on his own.”
Schukow completed his thesis research in two main stages. First, he studied the pancreas and the roles of various proteins’ gene expression on pancreatic tissues and the development of cancer. His goal was to write a paper for undergraduate students to understand the basics of the pancreas and pancreatic cancer.
According to Schukow, his preliminary research suggests that TXNIP would be produced at higher rates in individuals with pancreatic cancer than others. Additionally, as he later stated in his thesis, IL-22 aids in protecting and repairing pancreatic tissues. However, Schukow found little work regarding the interactions between these two proteins.
To better understand if the two were related, Schukow conducted experiments to observe interactions between the TXNIP and IL-22 proteins during the progression of pancreatic cancer.
With his research using mice pancreases, Schukow found that disproportionately high levels of TXNIP did occur in mice with pancreatic cancer. His research also suggests that the IL-22 protein, when produced at normal levels, prevents the pancreas from producing high levels of TXNIP, although Schukow said further research is needed to confirm this finding.
Schukow said his greatest difficulty — working and experimenting professionally in a lab setting — also proved to be his greatest success.
“I quickly realized how much I didn’t know, and I realized a difference between being book smart and being able to apply techniques into a lab itself,” Schukow said. “It was hard and frustrating, but I can look back at that and realize that I will be a much better medical school student and doctor someday.”
Chemistry major senior Jessica Taylor, who peer reviewed Schukow’s thesis, said Schukow worked diligently throughout the research and paper-writing process.
“He loves to learn,” Taylor said. “To see him write about it was insane, super cool to see him grow in that. He was so happy, upbeat, and outgoing on anything and wanted to teach everybody in the class that too.”
Schukow returned to University of Michigan’s laboratories to assist Lazarus Feb. 5. Now, he and Lazarus are working on a new staining system to study immune cells, like cytotoxic T-cells, that infiltrate cancers.
“Casey has a really bright future,” Lazarus said. “What he’s helping me with right now is going to be really intense, but he is up for it. He’ll do whatever it takes.”
He will work both in the lab and with his high school football team until he begins medical school in June at Michigan State University.
“Nothing that is really valuable is easily attained,” Schukow said. “Research and science paints a great picture of that.”