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A day in the life of an Abney Scholar

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Rebecca Knackstedt, an Abney Scholar, researches chemoprevention at the Hollings Cancer Center.
Rebecca Knackstedt, an Abney Scholar, researches chemoprevention
at Hollings Cancer Center.

Her love of natural medicine brought her here -- hunched over a dead laboratory mouse, gently snipping out its colon.

Rebecca Knackstedt admits to initial squeamishness and a few messy procedures early on. Now a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. student at the Medical University of South Carolina, she effortlessly removes the delicate tissue and inspects it. Normal.

Rebecca studies mouse models of cancer in a laboratory at Hollings Cancer Center, just floors above chemotherapy suites where cancer patients receive treatment. Rebecca's work focuses on chemoprevention, or delaying the onset and progression of cancer with drugs or supplements.

She welcomes her proximity to patients.

“It’s easy to forget the reason behind this,” she said.

Rebecca’s research is possible because of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with help from The Abney Foundation. The private foundation based in Anderson provides financial assistance to a variety of organizations, most notably higher education.

The Abney Foundation began supporting MUSC students such as Rebecca more than 15 years ago with its Abney Foundation Scholarship program, which provides tuition support for students seeking a career in medical research.

“The funding environment is so hard, and research is so expensive,” Rebecca said. “There’s not a lot of funding for natural product research.”

 

Rebecca’s cancer research
is possible because of funding from The Abney Foundation, which began supporting MUSC students such as Rebecca more than 15 years ago.

Her work has two paths: One side of her research examines colitis, or colon inflammation, in mice and the link between colitis and colon cancer. The other side to Rebecca’s research studies the effect of Vitamin D, which the human body produces when it soaks in sunshine or processes certain foods.

Science shows that Vitamin D reduces inflammation and prevents malignant cell growth, but Rebecca looks at how mice with colitis lack normal levels of the receptor to which Vitamin D binds. Rebecca feeds mice a Vitamin D-deficient diet and shows that they develop worse colitis than the control mice.

Rebecca now finds herself on what she calls “the last leg of the journey,” which examines whether she can reverse colitis with a diet high in Vitamin D. Other research suggests that high levels of Vitamin D can cause high levels of calcium, which leads to muscle spasms and heart problems in mice. The discovery presents a hurdle that researchers must overcome before their work can apply to humans.

The Abney Foundation has supported more than 75 budding MUSC researchers exploring the properties and prevention of cancer since the Abney Scholar program began in 1996. Abney Foundation Trustee Carl T. Edwards said Sally Abney Rose, daughter of founder Susie Matthews Abney, visited the Hollings Cancer Center and made it one of her personal causes.

Members of The Abney Foundation now follow up with the scholars each year to understand how funding supports cancer research.

“What they’re doing is usually very, very complex,” Edwards said. “But we at least want them to know there’s a real live person interested and concerned with what they’re doing.”

Rebecca came to MUSC, in part, because she wanted to work with Dr. Mike Wargovich. The former MUSC professor, now based in Texas, focuses on cancer chemoprevention and particularly the cancer-fighting properties of plants. He searches the world for healing plants and then studies exotic flora in the lab with the help of his students.

Today, after years of studying colitis in mice, Rebecca stands on the brink of ending this chapter of her own cancer research and contributing toward the knowledge base that moves closer toward a cure.