Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it was originally published.

Jean Sabile, a third-year student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has been awarded a Medical Student Initiation Grant by the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons to research the nature of cancer stem cells and how they communicate in colorectal cancer. His research mentors are Samy Lamouille, research assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Jennifer Vaughn, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at VTCSOM and oncologist at Blue Ridge Cancer Care, and Farrell Adkins, colon and rectal surgeon with Carilion Clinic and assistant professor in the medical school.

Sabile will be experimenting with colorectal cancer stem cells to determine how a malignancy develops from them as well as how these cells communicate with each other and their environment.

“Cancer cells need to communicate in order to continue to grow and metastasize,” he said. “So what we want to do is modulate the cancer stem cells’ communication to influence their overall growth. We want to find a target through which we can administer therapeutics--all in the context of colorectal cancer.”

“This is a well-deserved recognition for Jean who initiated this project and worked very hard during and outside his research blocks,” said Lamouille.

Sabile is using a protein called Connexin 43, which is known to play an important role in how cells communicate and is being studied for its therapeutic value in a number of areas, including brain cancer and cardiac arrhythmias. Connexin 43 is widely studied in various labs in the research institute. Rob Gourdie, professor and director of the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research, developed a peptide that alters Connexin 43 function and helps hinder cell communication.

“We have a lot of drugs that are effective at killing cancer cells,” Sabile said. “The problem is cancer stem cells tend to escape, sit and wait, and then come back,” he said.

In addition to manufactured cell lines, Sabile is using cancerous colorectal tissue obtained with patients’ consent from Carilion Clinic in cooperation with Adkins.

“Having the patient tissue is the crux of this project,” Sabile said. “When I started, we saw that with the cell lines, the drug actually worked and killed a lot of the cancer stem cells,” he said. “Now we are testing with live tissue to see if we get the same results.”

Sabile will first determine if the colorectal cancer stem cells contain a lot of Connexin 43. If so, there is more likely a pathway through which to target cancerous cells. Secondly, he will investigate whether the peptide is an effective means of killing the cancer stem cells. If so, it could potentially be used as an additional drug along with chemotherapy.

“I’m passionate about this project because this whole idea is kind of a novel concept,” Sabile said. “There’s not a drug out there like this in the field of cancer.”

“Jean’s significant work on this proposed project revealed for the first time the potent therapeutic effect of our peptide in colon cancer treatment,” said Lamouille. “Targeting colon cancer stem cells using this strategy represents a major step forward considering these cells are associated with tumor recurrence and metastasis.”

Sabile presented his research at the national Cancer Stem Cell Conference this fall where he received an award as one of the top five poster presentations.  He anticipates research will be a large part of his future as a physician.  “Part of being a doctor, for me, means not only taking care of patients but also finding a way to translate my other passions in science and research into care; in short, how to translate science into hope. I cannot wait to see what we learn with this project.”

In addition to researching a potentially groundbreaking treatment for colorectal cancer, Sabile is also leaving a legacy at Virginia Tech Carilion by creating a repository of frozen patient tissue that will enable future scientists to take samples from which to study and gain knowledge.

“I want to know that what we do will assist the next generation of research,” he said. “Beyond my stay here, my mentors are going to continue to make valuable use of that tissue and gain interesting knowledge from it.”

Other members of Sabile’s research team are Jamie Smyth, assistant professor in the research institute, Douglas Grider, assistant professor in the Department of Basic Science Education and director of GI and hepatic pathology in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at VTCSOM & Dominion Pathology Associates,  and Andrew Benson, clinical research coordinator for the Department of Surgery at Carilion Clinic.