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Bethel Researchers Investigate a Novel Compound that Could Fight Tuberculosis and Cancer

Assistant Professor of Chemistry James Christenson ’12 and Kristen Bishop ’19 spent a year working to isolate the substance. Now they’re seeking a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Health to fund additional equipment and student researchers.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

August 05, 2020 | 4 p.m.

The Edgren Scholars Program funds up to four research partnerships in which College of Arts and Sciences students and faculty work on summer scholarship projects.

The Edgren Scholars Program funds up to four research partnerships in which College of Arts and Sciences students and faculty work on summer scholarship projects.

“I love seeing the design and interconnectedness of everything,” says Assistant Professor of Chemistry James Christenson ’12 as he explains his research. “You can find a segment of DNA in one bacteria, and chase it throughout the whole bacterial kingdom. That’s just crazy to me.”

Then he dives into a history lesson. Alexander Fleming, he mentions, isolated penicillin from mold in 1928, and that kicked off the “antibiotic age.” In the early 2000s, DNA sequencing became widely available, opening an entirely new field of study focused on utilizing DNA sequences to help find medicinal compounds from nature. 

“Now we know there are these chemical compounds that fight cancer and do all these other things...it’s not just antibiotics,” Christenson says. In 2017, he published a paper about the DNA sequences that contain the information to create beta-lactone compounds with medicinal value. Similar DNA sequences code the information to create the FDA-approved anti-obesity drug Orlistat, which is also shown to inhibit tuberculosis.

“Now we just have to find it,” Christenson says. He’s spent the last few years working to do just that: discover and isolate the new beta-lactone compounds that DNA sequences indicate are present in actinobacteria. Last summer, an Edgren Scholarship funded a partnership with biochemistry and Spanish double-major Kristen Bishop ’19 to further the work. 

“It would be fantastic if we could find an antibiotic for tuberculosis,” he adds. “We think this Orlistat is pretty cool stuff, and we see similar gene signatures in other actinobacteria, but nobody knows what they are doing there.

“At this point, we’ve grown up our bacteria and gotten it to produce the compound we want,” Bishop adds. “I’m running a bunch of tests to see if it’s actually produced the compound. Then I set up an assay using a spectrometer that’ll detect the absorbance of a given reaction. If our compound has been produced, the absorbance should decrease. You should see no color.” 

What she’s explaining is her spectrophotometric test for the presence of beta-lactones. “Under normal conditions, the reaction turns yellow” Christenson explains. “If beta-lactone is there, it inhibits the reaction that forms the yellow color and suggests the beta-lactone could inhibit similar reactions that take place inside cells like tuberculosis. We’re also purifying that compound. If the year goes really well, what we will have at the end is a vial with purified antibiotic, which we’d then test against disease cells. We’ve already generated some initial data, and it’s likely the compound is going to have some anti-cancer properties.” 

Last summer, Christenson presented the work at a research conference at a Gordon Research Conference, and he’s integrated it into his Biochemistry I course at Bethel, where students are testing segments of DNA to see if they can also produce beta-lactone compounds. Because the summer 2019 Edgren Scholarship jump-started this work enough to get preliminary data, he’s now able to pursue a grant from the National Institute of Health to fund three additional years of student researcher salaries and specialized equipment.

Bishop also presented at last year’s Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities (ACTC) chemistry symposium. She now works for Bio Techne, a large biotechnology company in the Twin Cities. For her, biochemistry is an on-ramp to serving underrepresented communities through technology that didn’t exist even a handful of years ago. It’s also a way to connect with God.

“It’s kind of neat seeing this tiny little detail that God created. It’s fun to explore creation at such a microscopic level. I give praise back to God for all the stuff He’s done that most people don’t ever see or even think about.”

— Kristen Bishop ’19

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The Department of Chemistry prepares graduates who think creatively and critically to find new answers to important questions. You'll be challenged to investigate the complementary relationship between science and faith in Christ as you work to reach your goals.

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