Hope Ascends from Tragedy

Shelby Smith was only five years old when she lost her mother, Crystal Smith, to breast cancer. And Shelby was also very young when she first thought about becoming a breast cancer researcher.

Shelby’s mother and her father, Rob Smith, both worked at Lexington Medical Center when Shelby was small. Science and breast cancer research were often part of the family conversation.

I once saw something on television with people in a lab, and my dad was always saying that researchers are making progress toward new breast cancer treatments all the time. I remember having this idea: ‘I want to grow up to be a breast cancer researcher,’” Shelby said.

As a student at Clemson University, Shelby learned about a team working with swine mammary glands to identify genetic signals that could lead to a cure for breast cancer.“

It was immediately interesting for me, unlike any other research I’d heard about at Clemson before,” said Shelby. “I knew I had to get in there.”

Shelby soon joined the research team for the Bioinformatics for Cancer Genomics project.

In essence, the team is studying a specific cellular change or transition — and the signaling — that can happen before birth and up through puberty. This transition makes cells develop differently and allows them to migrate to other parts of the body.

Cancer cells also develop this way. Researchers believe this cell transition process may be an early step to development of the rarer triple-negative breast cancer cells. Triple-negative cancers grow aggressively and are more likely to spread and recur.

By researching the early development of mammary glands, the Clemson team hopes it can find a clue as to how triple-negative breast cancer cells get their start. And it, in turn, may lead to a cure.

“If you can figure out what signals are being sent in mammary gland cells in developing pigs, you can figure out how to turn them off, and theoretically, you can figure out how to turn them off for cancer cells, too,” Shelby said.

Shelby and the team went to a research farm and took biopsies from developing swine. The team preserved the tissue samples, made slides and examined the cellular structures. In March, they presented the study findings in a poster presentation at the Keystone Symposia of Molecular and Cellular Biology conference in Florence, Italy.

This past summer, Shelby continued the research as an undergraduate intern at Clemson to try and discover, at the microscopic level, what sends the signals that lead to cell changes. 

And she’s certain about one thing — health care, specifically research, is her calling. And that surprises no one.

“I love research,” she said. “Even if I get my medical degree, I would like to be involved in research. It makes me want to find out more.”

Before Crystal Smith’s death from breast cancer, her husband Rob established the Crystal Smith Breast Cancer Fund through the Lexington Medical Center Foundation. The fund provides needed items like wigs, mastectomy kits and prostheses for women as they are treated for and recover from breast cancer.

The annual Lexington Medical Center Foundation Women’s Night Out uses proceeds from the event to support this fund.

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