College undergraduate students active in cancer research

Friday, May 4, 2001

Lacey, Wash. - In 1999 Nick Drapela, assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Martin's College, read an article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry about a new chemical in the bark of the Sequoia tree that showed an ability to inhibit the growth of some cancer cell lines. The compound was sent to the National Cancer Institute for primary testing against 60 human tumor cell lines and showed moderate inhibition of them, with the greatest effect on breast cancer cell lines.

"The investor at the time was only able to get a very small amount of the substance because it's produced only in minute quantities in the bark," said Drapela, who began teaching at Saint Martin's in 2000. "It's not feasible to strip all the bark off of redwoods for a tiny amount of compound, which creates the need to create the same compound from a different source."

Today, under Drapela's supervision, three Saint Martin's students, T.J. Underwood, Yuliza Davila and Lynn Marie Tu, are carrying on with research that Drapela began while teaching in Colorado. Underwood is a junior biology major from Chehalis, Davila is a junior biology major from Olympia and Tu is a sophomore pre-medicine and chemistry major who calls both Olympia and Seattle home. Each student is responsible for constructing a separate strand of the compound.

"When all three are connected, hopefully we'll have the Sequoiatones and be able to produce enough for further testing," Drapela said. "We're trying to keep our ears open in case we hear of anyone else working on this project. So far we haven't heard anything, but that doesn't mean it's not happening."

Throughout the summer, members of the group will continue with their attempts to synthesize Sequoiatones A and B, and allow for further testing of the structure.

"It's great to be involved in a project that has so much potential," Underwood said. "It gives me goose bumps. With every day of research we get more and more excited."

Even with little funding, they have been able to complete about eight of the 18 steps necessary so far.

"If we construct our target compound and it passes the tests of cancer inhibition, then the worldwide benefits of our research are obvious. Scientists have been trying to find treatments for cancer for a very long time,"

Underwood said. "But if we don't achieve our ultimate goal of making the Sequoiatones, we will have provided new research that others around the world can use in their studies. For instance, a compound that we make might be the missing piece in someone else's project."

Whether the end results benefit the greater populace or other scientists, members are finding that it has already benefited them personally.

"Many people in my family have had cancer, which puts me at high risk for developing it, so my interest in cancer research goes back as long as I can remember," Davila said. "I wish we could get some results sooner because my uncle has been fighting cancer for some time now and I just wish that I could help him.

"Hopefully, we're on the right track with this compound because it has the chance of saving and helping many lives."

The team faces countless challenges and it's not unusual for three weeks of successes to be followed by months of nothing. By taking the project and dividing it into three sections, Drapela said the team is steadily making progress.

"What we're doing is working on a plan, kind of like a blueprint for a house--except, with a house you know what type of board thickness supports what amount of weight and so on," Drapela said. "In this case, we're working on a new substance that no one has ever seen before so the results won't be predictable."

For more information:
Nick Drapela, Assistant professor
Saint Martin's Chemistry Department

Christina Ramírez-Milhoan, communications specialist
Saint Martin's College Office of Communication
360-438-4541 or