Carolyn A. Kitchens Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Physical and Computational Sciences
Richardson Hall, Room 223
I began pursuing my scientific career in 2001 at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where I obtained my B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in Biology.
While at Appalachian, I was heavily encouraged to focus on a pre-medical discipline and attend medical school along with the majority of my peers. However, in my Junior year, one of my teachers recognized my potential as a scientific researcher and I began working in an organic synthesis laboratory with my mentor, Claudia P. Cartaya-Marin.
I received a summer undergraduate research fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). While at NIST, I worked with James Batteas in the Surface and Microanalysis Science Division focusing on the preparation and characterization of hybrid lipid bilayers on gold surfaces. Upon graduating from Appalachian State, I returned to NIST for a second internship working with Dr. Batteas, where my project resulted in a co-author publication in Langumir.
To further my career in medical research, I attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. In August of 2005, I joined the Interdisciplinary of Biomedical Science program, an umbrella program encompassing various areas of biomedical research, including Molecular Pharmacology.
After performing three laboratory rotations, I joined the laboratory of John Lazo within the Molecular Pharmacology program. As a member of Dr. Lazo’s laboratory, I worked with the microtubule perturbing agent, vinblastine, and utilized small interfering RNA and high throughput screening to identify a novel combination chemotherapy with ABT-263, a small molecule inhibitor of BCL-2 pro-survival proteins, and vinblastine. I collaborated on a number of projects while in Dr. Lazo’s laboratory and was able to contribute to a variety of co-author publications, including a first-author manuscript in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. In January of 2011, I obtained my Ph.D. in Molecular Pharmacology, at which point I pursued a postdoctoral research position in the academic sciences.
I was a postdoc in the laboratory of Steffi Oesterreich within the Magee Women’s Research Institute in the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute where I had the opportunity to collaborate with the sequencing core at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, as well as the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP) at Alleghany General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Through this collaboration, we were able to identify and functionally characterize novel small nuclear variants in the estrogen receptor alpha in clinical breast cancer tissue samples.
While working on cancer research during the day in Dr. Oesterreich’s lab, I started teaching Anatomy and Physiology to nursing students in the evening at the Community College of Alleghany County in Pittsburgh. It was during this time that I found my true passion of teaching and I have never looked back.
As long as I can remember, I have always had an interest in cancer research. Even as far back as middle school, when confronted with the cancer/radiation paradox, I was amazed by the disease that ultimately renders even the greatest minds and greatest therapies useless.
To this day, the best “treatment” for any type of cancer is early detection and that is only for the types of cancer that are treatable. Personally, I have always been attracted to the family of cancers that are essentially untreatable: Glioblastoma Multiforme (the most aggressive form of brain cancer with a 0% 5-year survival rate) and Triple-negative Breast Cancer (a form of breast cancer that is resistant to all forms of current chemotherapy).
Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) is especially difficult to treat due to the: location of the cancer, aggressive biological behavior, infiltrating growth and resistance to current anticancer therapies. Despite all the developments and advancements in new surgical techniques, radiation treatment and anticancer chemotherapy, a successful treatment, much less a cure, for GBM remains elusive.
Even with surgical removal in conjunction with radiation and chemotherapy treatments, the tumor reoccurrence is rapid and indicative of a tumorigenic cell population that is resistant to current therapies. The primary reason for this resistance is one of the human body’s greatest defenses: the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB).
The BBB consists of epithelial cells, whose primary function is to prevent the transfer of harmful substances from the blood stream in to extracellular fluid of the brain. These cells present two unique characteristics that are not typically seen in capillary epithelial cells: tight junctions and overexpression of P-glycoprotein. P-glycoprotein (PGP), which is also known as Multidrug Resistant Protein 1, is a transmembrane protein that contains an ATP-dependent efflux pump that recognizes the presence of foreign and potentially harmful compounds in the cell and pumps said compounds outside the cell.
In terms of the BBB, these PGP’s prevent the absorption of potentially harmful compounds into the brain, particularly natural compounds. PGP is an evolutionary protein where through the evolution of man, many toxic natural compounds have been consumed, and only the survivors express PGP in cells like those that protect the brain. For this reason, many cancer cells are resistant to classical chemotherapies due to the fact that those classical chemotherapies are all derived from natural products. In order to improve current cancer chemotherapies, particularly those used in the treatment of GBM, we must develop anticancer treatments that are not susceptible to PGPs and can cross the BBB.
I plan to help develop and test alternative anticancer therapies to help address the issue of resistance in GBMs as well as other multidrug resistant cancer cells.
B.S., Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C. (2005)
Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh (2011)
Areas of Passion & Research
While in the past my primary research interests involve drug discovery and working specifically with cancer genomics, at this point in time, my primary research interests involves the opioid epidemic in rural Appalachia.
As the Bethany College representative for the Ohio Valley Higher Education Research Consortium (OVHERC), we are studying the opioid epidemic in the Ohio Valley. This is a group arranged by Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia. It is a collaboration between Bethany College, West Liberty University, Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia Northern Community College, Franciscan University, Ohio University Eastern, Eastern Gateway Community College, and Belmont Community College. Initially, this consortium had difficulty deciding on a research project to pursue.
The difficulty of working with so many different schools is because of the different interests and disciplines at each institution. Currently, there are three institutions as a part of this consortium focusing on the drug epidemic in the Ohio Valley, trying to find funding for research projects to help better prevent drug overdoses in the Ohio Valley. Below is a brief synopsis of my research interest as it pertains to the OVHERC:
On a per-capita basis, West Virginia’s death rate from overdoses leads the nation at 41.5 deaths per 100,000 individuals. The practice of using opioid painkillers to treat chronic, non-terminal pain was the spark that ignited the nationwide epidemic.
Starting in the mid-1990s with the introduction of OxyContin, physicians and other healthcare providers across the country were indoctrinated to accept the notion that prescription opioids could be used safely to treat mild to moderate chronic pain conditions.
Over time, as patients continued to use OxyContin as a pain reliever, these individuals become dependent upon these opioid pain killers and require medication to function on a daily basis. When unable to receive prescriptions from doctors for their addiction, users are forced to turn to illicit dealers and ultimately result in using heroin and even fentanyl to feed their addiction.
In a 2002 survey performed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, up to 15 percent of all West Virginia employees in the mining and construction industry and 10 percent of employees in all other industries admitted to either heavy alcohol or illicit drug use. As a direct result of these percentages, in 2008, West Virginia passed its Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace Act, where employees agree to random drug tests, where any positive test results in automatic termination.
In the Ohio Valley, there are multiple companies charged with performing the majority of drug tests. According to Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace Act in West Virginia, these companies are required to perform a nine-panel drug screen, which tests specifically for: Amphetamines, Cocaine metabolites, Marijuana metabolites, Opiates (codeine and morphine), Phencyclidine, Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, Methadone, and Propoxyphene.
Since 2015, there has been over a thousand-fold increase in the number of deaths due to fentanyl overdose. This increase in fentanyl usage and overdose is primarily due to the heightened efficacy of fentanyl over heroin and the relative price. Fentanyl also presents a danger to the current workforce and the Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace Act, as fentanyl and its analogues are not detected by commonly used opioid drug screens. Therefore, the nine panel drug tests required by the Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace Act would return as a false negative due to the inability to detect the presence or absence of fentanyl in a urine sample.
We hypothesize that as more individuals turn to fentanyl as the drug of choice, these standard drug panel tests used by major corporations are resulting in false negatives causing a potentially hazardous work environment. We are currently developing collaborations with the drug testing companies in the Ohio Valley to cross reference collected urine samples with a fentanyl ELISA to determine whether individuals that test negative for a standard drug panel test would test positive for the use of fentanyl.
This research is the very early stages and currently does not have any funding. In September of 2018, I attended a two-day workshop at West Virginia University, where they invited representatives from the National Institutes of Health to help build the research capacity in West Virginia. At this symposium, I discussed a variety of grant opportunities to bring back to Bethany College and the Ohio Valley Consortium as a whole.
Potential grant applications available to Bethany College include, but not limited to, AREA R15, Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grants, and IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grants. Should I apply and be awarded one of these grants, the R15 and SEPA grants could potentially transfer to Appalachian, but unfortunately, North Carolina is not part of the IDeA network and therefore, any INBRE grant would not transfer.
That said, I did develop various networking connections with individuals at the NIH, particularly Kathy Etz, Ph.D, one of the Health Science Administrators in the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) branch at the NIH. If provided this opportunity, I would like to continue the collaboration with the research consortium in the Ohio Valley and expand this research interest to all of Appalachia.
Teaching; Advising; Mentoring; Coaching; Athletics; Netflix; the Outdoors; Helping others.
Favorite Quote, Book, or Movie … Why?
“Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing in it.” —Jesse Owens
In a world so focused on the negative, we must always remember to recognize the positive in the world.
Run American Red Cross Blood Drives through the Pre-Health Professions Club at Bethany College