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USU alum Alicja Copik

USU alum Alicja Copik, research assistant professor and core scientist at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine and Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences.

Courtesy UCF

USU Alum Builds Body’s Own Defense Against Cancer

Biochemist Alicja Copik PhD’03 creates nanoparticle to generate an army of ‘Natural Killer’ cells

It’s difficult to find anyone whose life hasn’t been touched – often shattered – by the dreaded diagnosis of cancer. Abnormal cells dividing uncontrollably. Where have they advanced? Can they be stopped in time? How much treatment can one endure until the battle is won or lost?

As formidable as these malignant cells are, our bodies also contain ‘Natural Killer’ (NK) cells capable of destroying cancers and viruses. Identified by scientists in the late 1970s, a challenge in developing immunotherapies to harness the power of these cells is how to generate enough of them to effectively overcome invading malignancies and pathogens.

Utah State University alum Alicja Copik PhD’03, now a research scientist at the University of Central Florida, has created a nanoparticle that boosts the number of Natural Killer cells 10,000-fold in the lab.

“You realize how powerful this system is when you see these cells literally tearing apart the tumors,” Copik says. “These Natural Killer cells are an army and they’re your friends. This potential therapy means you have more of these fighters and they are armed to the teeth.”

Cyto-Sen Therapeutics, Inc., a Florida-based start-up company created by Copik and colleagues, along with associates at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, recently licensed the technology and plan to initiate clinical trials later this year.

“I started working on this research around 2009 and it took several years to develop ways to generate NK cells efficiently,” Copik says. “At first, the nanoparticles caused the cells to multiply and increase in amount by only 10 to 20 times.”

In small, pilot trials, an earlier version of NK cell therapy showed promise in treating acute myeloid leukemia. Copik hopes it can be used against many other cancers, as well as viral infections such as HIV and Ebola.

“These advances are what motivate me and everyone else in my lab and make me happy to go to work every day,” says the scientist, whose mother battled cancer. “Science always has questions. Sometimes you find answers that help others.”

Copik’s research breakthroughs were fueled by relatively modest seed funding from UCF and grants from the Florida Department of Health’s Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program.

“I come from Poland and we’re used to getting done what needs to be done with whatever is available,” she says. “If you believe in what you can do and don’t get discouraged by the inevitable obstacles, you can find solutions.”

As a child, Copik dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. She says her love of science was inspired by her engineer father, who created automated mechanical locks and door openings to improve safety for coal miners.

Copik earned a degree in chemical engineering from the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, Poland, where she developed an interest in organic chemistry and earned an advanced degree in chemical technology. She entered USU in 1998, where she conducted biochemical mechanistic studies in metalloproteases with faculty mentors Richard Holz, Lance Seefeldt, Steve Aust and Jon Takemoto.

“I received a wonderful education and worked with amazing faculty at USU,” Copik says. “And I loved living in Utah.”

Away from the lab, she enjoyed biking, hiking, climbing and skiing.

“Scientific research can be all- consuming,” Copik says.

“Walking out of the lab at Utah State and seeing all the beautiful mountains helped to put things into perspective. Being in nature helped me relax and find balance.”

An added bonus at Utah State was meeting her future husband, fellow USU biochemistry alum Robert Igarashi PhD’05, also a UCF faculty member.

“We have great memories of Utah State,” Copik says.

To current USU students, she advises, “Work hard, have a passion for science and enjoy the journey.”

“Everything else will solve itself,” Copik says. “There’s a great future in science, with so many opportunities in academia and industry.”

-- Mary-Ann Muffoletto