Casey Schukow ’17 researched the link between two pro­teins and pan­creatic cancer. Casey Schukow | Courtesy


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.”