Damon Jacobs


damonjacobs1 When the following article was originally published, Damon Jacobs, Oglala Lakota, was in the early years of graduate school in the Department of Cell and Molecular Physiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Jacobs, who authored the article, was, and still is, studying molecular mechanisms that facilitate biological functions in the human body. Jacobs provides an update at the end of this article.

Pursuing Research to Advance Health Care

My research focuses on the functions of molecular motor proteins called myosins. Most people are familiar with muscle contraction, which requires an interaction between actin and myosin to produce force. The force generating muscle contraction allows us to run or jump. The same molecular mechanism facilitates many other processes inside our cells, such as the transport or secretion of small molecules. Myosin motor proteins literally "walk" along actin filaments, which act as "tracks" in cells to transport molecules to specific destinations. An elaborate and highly organized cellular network of "tracks" exists and is utilized by many motor proteins. The system of roadways within the United States provides a nice parallel with the "tracks" and motor proteins being analogous to the cars that follow them.

Breast Cancer Research

In my current research, I am using breast cancer cells to study the physiological function of a specific myosin molecule, named myosin 5c. These cells, along with other cancer cell lines, seem to have an abundance of myosin 5c protein, which leads us to hypothesize that it may play an important role. Myosin molecular motors are required for several important cellular functions, including growth, cell division, and migration, all of which are processes that are "out of control" in cancer cells. I am presently working to determine the function of myosin 5c in these cells.

Breast cancer research is important because it is the most common form of cancer in women and ranks second behind lung cancer for cancer-related mortality. In fact, one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lives. There are also other important diseases, including cystic fibrosis and some variants of diabetes that are caused by defective transport of specific proteins and molecules. Type 2 diabetes, as a result of obesity, is becoming very common in the world and seems to afflict certain populations, such as American Indians, more frequently than others. It is also interesting that a higher incidence of obesity correlates with an increased risk of breast cancer. Because of this, I want to determine the specific functions of myosin 5c and learn whether it will directly influence treatment of breast cancer or diseases caused by transport defects.

A Boyhood Curiosity About Nature

My interest in performing biomedical research stems from my inherent curiosity about nature and an appreciation for life in its many forms. Because we were less fortunate financially than most kids, my five brothers and two sisters and I were forced to be creative and find alternate ways to entertain ourselves.

It was always fun for me to run around in the outdoors exploring new territory and discovering new things. Going hunting and fishing with my grandpa, older brother and cousins built a strong connection with nature early in life. In fact, hunting elk with a bow and fly-fishing in Colorado are still some of my favorite things to do.

Biomedical Research Opportunities

Back then I was not aware that medical research at a major university was in my future. It wasn't until much later as an undergraduate student that I realized research opportunities were available to me. Many years later, I am now lucky enough to have the tools and knowledge needed to study the biological mechanisms in a much more detailed manner.

Performing biomedical research, in many ways, can be very simple. Often, when our "gut feeling" or instincts are telling us something, we accept it and follow it. Performing cellular and molecular biological research allows me to determine just exactly what is occurring to influence my gut feelings or instincts. Graduate school research is teaching me to listen to those instincts and then formulate a hypothesis around them. As a researcher, it is my job to form testable hypotheses from previous facts and observations and then perform experiences to test them.

In the laboratory of Dr. Richard Cheney, where I am carrying out my dissertation research, we are using high-magnification and high-resolution optics to study the movements that molecular motor proteins undergo. Fluorescence time-lapse imaging allows us to make moves of motor proteins that have a fluorescent tag attached to them. It is extremely exciting and beautiful to visualize for the first time the dynamic movements of a newly discovered protein that is found inside our own bodies.

We then formulate a hypothesis about its cellular function based on the movements we observed. The physiology department trains students to study a problem at the cellular and molecular level while maintaining the whole-organism perspective. As I gain more knowledge about natural mechanisms, I become more fascinated.

American Indian Researchers Can Increase Tribal Self-Reliance

Performing biomedical research will contribute to the advancement of health care and can provide avenues for the next generation of students to obtain graduate degrees. It is important for future generations of American Indians to become health care professionals and researchers and become more involved with health care on the reservation due to the increased susceptibility of Indian people towards diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and alcoholism. Obtaining advanced degrees in the sciences and health related fields by American Indians will increase tribes' self-reliance and autonomy.

I am aware of only a handful of American Indian PhDs working as biomedical researchers and professors at universities around the country. American Indians need to become more involved in education at all levels and serve as mentors and role models for future generations of Natives and non-Natives alike.
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This article was first published in the Summer 2004 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Mark Anthony Jacobson, Ojibway, from the Frog Clan.)

Update 2008

Damon Jacobs: "I am finishing up my dissertation research and will be graduating this fall (2008). As mentioned above, my thesis work looked at the role of molecular motor proteins and how they move cellular components within the cell. More specifically I focused on class V myosins which are a family of motor proteins that walk along actin filament “tracks” and are specialized in targeting membranous components to specific destinations within our cells. The mammary gland cells used in my research, express an abundant amount of Myo5c protein, making these cells ideal for studies on Myo5c function. My work has determined a role for Myo5c and has provided the first demonstration of an actin based molecular motor having a direct role in exocrine secretion in human cells. This work is important because it takes science a step further toward understanding the molecular mechanisms of secretion in tissues such as the breast, the prostate, and the pancreas.

"My future plans following my dissertation defense include taking a post-doctoral position within the University of Kansas:
Institutional Research and Academic Career Advancement (IRACDA) program. This program will provide me with a post-doctoral mentor, with whom I will perform research. Also through the IRACDA program, I will gain teaching experience at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. I am very excited about the IRACDA partnership between KU and Haskell because this will be a great learning opportunity for me as a future professor/researcher of biology, and it also has high potential to increase the number of minorities in the sciences at all levels."