Biology Faculty Spotlight, Dr. Jessica McCready: Assumption faculty and students research potential links between pregnancy and breast cancer.
Dr. Jessica McCready is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Assumption College who discovered an interest in biology at a young age.
“My ultimate goal was to become a medical doctor because I didn’t really know what else to do with a degree in Biology.”
This idea changed, when as a junior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where she studied nutrition, McCready volunteered in a lab to gain experience (mostly for medical school), and she found herself hooked on research in just a few weeks.
“I loved the thrill of discovery, the anticipation of waiting for results and the ability to persevere through failure.” McCready says the instances of inevitable failures can “sometimes be the most exciting moments in the lab, because it forces you to revise your way of thinking about the problem and look for alternative hypotheses.”
McCready’s research focuses on Pregnancy Associated Breast Cancer (PABC), which is diagnosed up to one year following a pregnancy. PABC makes up only about 3 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses, but it affects young women who are new mothers or about to become new mothers and is very aggressive with a significantly higher mortality rate. For these reasons, McCready is passionate about conducting this research that could make a small difference in patient’s lives.
As a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts University, McCready began to study PABC. Her research started by asking why some women get breast cancer at this time in their lives, and further, is there something special happening to the cells in the breast during pregnancy or immediately after pregnancy that might contribute to PABC?
Working with Assumption bachelor’s degree students in the lab at the Testa Science Center, McCready and her team analyze cell differences in the two types of breast tissue (groups of cells) — (1) epithelial cells that produce milk but are also the ones that change to become cancer cells and (2) stromal cells that contain fat cells to support epithelial cells in lactation, providing the nutrition the cells need to grow. She and her team compare these tissues in both lactating and non-pregnant mice.
“We know that there are many changes occurring as the cells prepare for its role in lactation and I hypothesized that these changes might promote tumor growth.”
McCready discovered that adipocytes, or fat cells, isolated from lactating mice (ASC-L for short) promote very aggressive tumors when compared to adipocytes isolated from non-pregnant mice. She also discovered that ASC-L cells have very high levels of a gene named crabp1.
“This gene, when present, promotes aggressive tumors and when absent, tumor promotion decreases. “
Further research to answer questions regarding cellular signals that lead to high levels of crabp1 may lead to an explanation for the aggressive nature of PABC.
McCready encourages students to reach out to Assumption professors to get involved in important research like hers.
“We form close relationships with our research students that last beyond the students’ time at Assumption,” she said.
“Research is important in all aspects of biology. It will help you become a better doctor, physician’s assistant, nurse, pharmacist, etc. Knowing more about the way cells work, be they human or otherwise, is powerful information.”
How will you make a difference? The College is always looking for smart, motivated students to work in its state of the art labs in the Testa Science Center.