Last month, cyclists with Illini 4000 stopped by the St. Paul campus to meet with CBS faculty member Michael Smanski (BMBB/BTI) and hear more about his research. Illini 4000 is a non-profit organization that works to document the experiences of people suffering from cancer, and raise awareness and money for cancer research through an annual cross-country biking trip. One of the organizations the group funds through these efforts is the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, which awarded Smanski its 2015 Damon Runyon-Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientist award.
“There are many small molecules produced in nature that are used in cancer therapy and diagnosis,” says Smanski. “We are working on some new approaches that allow us to engineer the production of these molecules. Specifically, we use the latest synthetic DNA technologies to print out genes and build biosynthetic pathways for anti-cancer molecules.Sometimes we engineer organisms to produce more of the important molecules, and other times we aim to alter the chemical structures of the molecules themselves.”
Over the course of the day, a group of riders toured Smanski’s lab, shared a lunch and had a group discussion on cancer research happening in labs across the University as well as across the world. Engaging in these conversations and taking part in a national bike ride hits close to home for many of the riders, a group primarily composed of students at the University of Illinois.
“Many people were motivated to join because they have loved ones who have been affected by cancer,” says Catherine Kemp, one of the Illini 4000 ride leaders. “We all want to contribute to the fight against cancer, and this is the best way we know how to do that. For us, it was really powerful to meet with researchers that receive funding from Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and see exactly where our fundraising money goes. We often think about cancer research in the most abstract way, so learning about a concrete example of that research was neat.”
For Smanski, the meeting not only gave a personal side to the research he takes part in on a daily basis, but also a moment of inspiration in what others do to work toward the discoveries he hopes to attain.
“It really is a monumental feat,” says Smanski on the group’s efforts to bike across the country. “I was originally imagining that they were going to be these seasoned riders, but was surprised to learn most weren’t serious bike riders before they started their trip.To meet people with enough courage and motivation to go out and buy a bike to ride across the country was inspirational to say the least.” – Lance Janssen