September 9, 2016 | by Jay Fernandez
One of the great benefits of medical breakthroughs is their potential for drawing great new curious minds to the field of medical science. The Hope Experiment, City of Hope’s newest educational outreach program, hopes to accelerate that process and inspire budding young scientists by making its expertise in biomedical research and cancer-treating innovations accessible to students and the public, along with some of the institution’s most promising and dedicated staff.
Thirty-nine-year-old Karineh Petrossian is a perfect example. Born in Iran and raised in Los Angeles, Petrossian received her undergraduate degree in biology from California State University, Northridge, where she also achieved a master’s degree in biology. Having just graduated in May with her Ph.D. from the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences at City of Hope, where she studied the emerging science of superfoods, she is now a postdoctoral fellow at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope.
Scientists have discovered that superfoods, which are high in nutrients, may reduce the risk of chronic disease, prolong life, and contribute to better health and well-being. They boost the body’s immune system, and certain special foods have the potential to fight cancer by blocking hormones that help it spread.
City of Hope researchers have been studying whether white button mushrooms, which block an enzyme that helps produce estrogen, can slow or kill breast cancer tumors dependent on estrogen to grow. Compounds in pomegranates and grape seed extract suppress hormones similarly, without affecting healthy tissue.
Mushrooms may also be able to block hormones that affect prostate cancer and lung cancer, as well as reduce the incidence of metabolic diseases and slow down the formation of fat. Blueberries can hinder cancer cell migration and inhibit the growth of a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, while cinnamon has properties that may prevent tumors from creating blood vessels to feed them.
With The Hope Experiment right around the corner, Karineh spoke with us about her background, her interest in superfoods and her advice for others thinking of entering the field of medical research.
What inspired you to move toward science, medicine and research?
I’ve always been fascinated with cancer research, and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age; thus, it drove me into research to help find a cure.
Why did you join City of Hope?
I joined City of Hope because it’s a place that we, as researchers, can study the many different types of cancers that affect many people.
What keeps you engaged and motivated as a researcher?
I'm motivated by understanding the mechanisms of drug targets and finding potential solutions to resistance to current treatments.
What most attracted you to superfoods, and why are they important?
My mentor Dr. Shiuan Chen works on superfoods — currently with mushrooms and blueberries. When I joined his lab, I was excited by the idea of using everyday foods as a great way to help block cancer’s effects. They’re not drugs, but superfoods have properties that serve as inhibitors of cancer cell proliferation and growth.
What advice would you give to a high school or college student weighing medicine and research as a career path?
Either field (medicine or research) serves others in their time of illness. Research works behind the scenes trying to help develop drugs for the field of medicine. It’s all about what a person loves as a career. Both fields involve learning and collaboration, but medicine involves daily interaction with patients while research involves daily interaction with researchers to help guide a potential drug to the patient, from the bench to the bedside.
Why do you think the Hope Experiment is useful? And are you going to the event?
I’ll be at the event talking to people about our research with mushrooms and blueberries. I think it’s a great program to help people understand the importance of both studying natural foods as well as incorporating them into their daily meals.
What outside interests do you have that are unrelated to your schooling and job? And how do they help keep you a balanced life?
I’m a people person, so I love to be around people, like my friends and family, and spend time with them. I love the outdoors and love to hike, swim and take walks. And I love to read. The only way I can keep myself sane is to take a step back, go take a walk and come back to fight the battle I left behind.
For more information on superfoods and City of Hope’s groundbreaking research into their potential for fighting cancer, visit The Hope Experiment, an educational pop-up event that will take place at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, Wednesday, Sept. 14, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hosted in partnership with Cal-HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and Emmy-nominated actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”), who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, the event will showcase City of Hope’s commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) through hands-on, interactive activities and the opportunity to speak with City of Hope scientists and students such as Karineh Petrossian.