URI pharmacy student targeting breast cancer, AIDS in her research

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. –January 9, 2009—For Jessica Lehmann, a fourth-year pharmacy student and member of the University of Rhode Island track and field team, her fight against killers like cancer is personal. That’s because her mother is a breast cancer survivor.

The Park Ridge, N.J. resident took that personal interest and worked last summer as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow with URI Pharmacy Professor Keykavous Parang, focusing on breast and colon cancer research. She paid particular attention to a certain protein that gets over-expressed and causes these types of cancer. The intent was to turn off the gene that causes the problem and expresses the protein. Lehmann and Parang worked to develop a molecule to bind with the gene to prevent the production of the protein.

“I’ve always wanted to do research within my field and I felt that the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship was a great opportunity to try this out,” said Lehmann who is enrolled in the six-year doctor of pharmacy program. “I liked working on anti-breast cancer agents because my mother is a breast cancer survivor so it really hits home for me.”

From working with Parang, Lehmann stated, “I’ve learned a lot, he’s so knowledgeable in medicinal chemistry research. I was able to attend group meetings and see how everything worked. I got more hands on experience in the lab as far as organic chemistry aspect goes.”

She is continuing her work with Parang, and in the spring will turn her attention to an anti-HIV research. Since women face a greater risk of acquiring HIV, Lehmann and Parang will continue working on making a topical anti-HIV cream that women can apply before intercourse to prevent transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Parang has done some preliminary research on several of compounds for the cream and some have shown promise. Lehmann and Parang will be modifying and combining current anti-HIV drugs and/or linking them to new anti-HIV agents to generate compounds that can be used in a cream and potentially improve women’s health worldwide.

Lehmann had contacted Parang about assisting him with the HIV research because they worked well together. He was more than happy to continue their partnership. Lehmann will start her new research work with Parang this month.

Parang said it is extremely difficult to encourage pharmacy students to pursue graduate programs or to do short-term research. This is not surprising because of the high demand for pharmacists in the job market, he said. When he earned his doctor of pharmacy degree, he chose not to work in a retail pharmacy.

“I had the passion for doing research that can benefit human health and change peoples’ lives in the larger dimension,” Parang said. “I detected the same passion in Jessica. When she came to my laboratory, I found her a very energetic, dedicated, and self-motivated Pharm. D. student. During her research at my laboratory, she showed a great deal of enthusiasm to continue toward a graduate degree. Although Jessica had no previous research experience in medicinal chemistry of anti-cancer and antiviral drugs, she was able to learn quickly and perform her duties perfectly in a very short period of time.”

Parang said her major strength is that she enjoys doing research to solve potential problems.

“Jessica continues to be a role model for other students showing that by doing research even in a short period of time they can enjoy their education and career by being creative and innovative on a daily basis. Furthermore, that can make a major impact in the lives of others. “

While continuing such intense research, Lehmann performs at a high level in the classroom, maintaining a grade point average of 3.94. She is also in her fourth year as a member of the URI track and field team, for which she competes in the throwing events.

“Jessica is an outstanding student-athlete and role model,” said Laurie Feit-Melnick, head coach of women’s track and field and cross country.

While pursuing her pharmacy degree, Lehmann trains all year long for the indoor and outdoor seasons, finishing as high as sixth in the discus throw at the Atlantic 10 Track and Field Championships.

“This is not an easy feat,” Feit-Melnick said. “Jessica works extremely hard in the classroom and at practice every day, whether it is throwing, running sprints or lifting in the weight room.

“We are so very proud of Jessica’s accomplishments academically and athletically, and look forward to her journey ahead. Jessica is a tremendous asset to the track and field program and University of Rhode Island.”

Pictured above

STUDENT RESEARCHER: URI pharmacy student and track and field team member Jessica Lehmann of Park Ridge, N.J., at a research lab at the University. URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.