Magnified bladder tissue is seen through a microscope at a University of North Georgia lab in Oakwood. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

UNG researchers take multilayered approach to combat bladder cancer

University of North Georgia assistant biology professor Shannon Kispert is on maternity leave, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to her office a few weeks ago — with her infant son — to show a visitor some of her team’s bladder cancer research.

Her team is using mice to test whether cigarette smoke can cause this form of cancer, and so far the results show there may be a link.

Bladder cancer is the eighth-leading form of cancer and considered an aggressive form of the disease. It will kill nearly 18,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society. However, Kispert and others point out there is less research done on this form of cancer. Experts say they’re seeing more work in this area in the past five years, but need additional researchers like those at UNG.

“We want to get young people engaged and excited about this,” said David DeGraff, an assistant professor at Penn State University who specializes in bladder and prostate cancer treatment.

The research is one part of the work. The other part, a public anti-smoking campaign, is scheduled to begin in August.

Federal data shows 17.5% of Georgians are smokers, which is tied with New Mexico as the 19th-highest percentage in the nation. UNG has been mapping which Georgia counties have the highest smoking rates and plans to canvass those communities around August to share information about state cessation programs.

> RELATED: Atlanta weighs crackdown on e-cigarettes as part of smoking ban

UNG has become more active in recent years in multiple areas of research. The university has nearly doubled its grants and research awards from about $2.9 million to $5.7 million in a recent four-year stretch, officials say. The state’s Board of Regents gave the school approval in May to change its mission statement, removing “inquiry” and replacing it with “research” to reflect, as President Bonita Jacobs wrote to the board, its “research growth and momentum, as well as opportunities for students, talented faculty, and increased external funding.”

Senior biology student Jessica Nix got involved in the research after being Kispert’s teaching assistant. She was fascinated by how it all worked. Her interest in cancer research is personal. Her uncle was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“It hit home,” said Nix, 30, a first-generation college student who said she never imagined she would be able to assist in such research.

University of North Georgia assistant biology professor Shannon Kispert (left) and senior biology student Jessica Nix work in their lab on bladder cancer research. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The general five-year survival rate for people with bladder cancer is 77%, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Research funding for the disease was nearly $36 million in the federal fiscal year 2017, the most recent year available, according to a database on the National Cancer Institute’s website. But there are at least 10 forms of cancer that received more funding, the database shows.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of the disease, experts say. Another leading cause is exposure to environmental toxicants, such as hair dye, DeGraff said.

“We know that if people smoke, they have an increased risk of bladder cancer, but why? We don’t know why,” Kispert said.

The UNG team has found changes in the bladder tissue in its research. Kispert said the bladder tissue of mice was more frayed after being exposed to six months of smoke. They used a machine the size of a microwave to emit the smoke through small mesh wire tubes into the mice to mimic firsthand smoke. The team chose six months because, they said, the life span of mice is typically two years and they believed six months of cigarette exposure is similar to the amount of time of humans who smoke a pack a day, Kispert said. Some of the work was done at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

> RELATED: The real cost of smoking in Georgia

DeGraff noted there have been improvements in bladder cancer treatment in recent years, such as immune checkpoint blockades, which have doubled the survival rate in patients, according to some medical news sites.

Kispert began her work in 2014. As with any scientific research, it can take years to make a breakthrough.

“For every experiment that works, there are 10 experiments that don’t work,” Kispert said.

Kispert’s team wants to eventually use live bladder cells and expose them to cigarette smoke to see the results.

They also want to help people to stop smoking by understanding what factors are prompting people to smoke.

Nix wants to pursue a doctoral degree continuing such research. Her uncle, whose cancer is in remission, told Nix he’s excited.

“Honey,” Nix recalled he said. “I know you are going to do great things.”

Senior biology student Jessica Nix, who’s assisting with bladder cancer research, organizes samples in her University of North Georgia lab. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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