Broccoli, breast cancer and role models

Broccoli, breast cancer and role models

October 23, 2017
By Matt Windsor
Graduate student Kendra Royston is studying links between nutrition and women's health, with an eye to encouraging minority students to pursue research careers.

As a rising senior at Stillman College, Kendra Royston spent the summer in the UAB lab of Dr. Trygve Tollefsbol, studying the effects of dietary compounds on breast cancer cells. It was a “transformative experience,” she recalls — the first time she had been able to make a connection between two long-time interests: women’s health and nutrition. “The idea that nutritive compounds can be toxic to breast cancer cells was of extreme interest to me,” says Royston, a Huntsville native who is now a doctoral student in biology in Tollefsbol’s lab.

Intriguing findings

Royston studies chemical changes triggered by two natural compounds: sulforaphane and withaferin A. Sulforaphane, found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, has been shown to slow aging and have numerous anti-cancer effects in studies at UAB and elsewhere. Withaferin A is derived from the ashwagandha, or Indian winter cherry. It has been shown to be an inhibitor of angiogenesis, the process of forming new blood vessels that tumors depend on to fuel their growth. Royston launched the study of withaferin A in the Tollefsbol lab.

“I recently published a paper that explores the effects of withaferin A and sulforaphane in conjunction on breast cancer cells,” Royston says. “We found that the combination of these compounds synergistically inhibited the growth of breast cancer cells.” The withaferin-sulforaphane combo also affected levels of important epigenetic markers — histone deacetylases and DNA methyltransferases — in “two drastically different breast cancer cell lines,” she says.

"I’ve always enjoyed eating broccoli. My research has encouraged me to tell all my friends and family members to make sure they’re eating their fair share of it."

Career goals

Royston has “lofty” career goals, she says: in addition to advancing the basic science of chemo-prevention in the lab, she wants to work with interdisciplinary teams of researchers to eliminate health disparities associated with cancer. She would also like to be in a position to help diversify the STEM fields “by providing opportunities for minorities to pursue careers in research and medicine,” she says. Royston earned the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship Program to help enable her graduate studies at UAB.

Royston’s UAB mentors offer inspiration for her career path. Tollefsbol, Royston’s primary research adviser, is an international expert on epigenetic mechanisms in cancer, who has authored several books on the subject. “He’s been instrumental in teaching me independence and ownership,” Royston says. Her secondary adviser, Douglas Hurst, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology, who specializes in the molecular mechanisms of breast cancer metastasis, “has also been an excellent mentor,” she says.

Dramatic disparities

This year, Royston was named a trainee to the Susan G. Komen Graduate Training in Disparities Research Grant, which was awarded to UAB cancer researchers Karen Meneses, Ph.D., and Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., in 2016. Although disparities in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment occur throughout the country, they are particularly acute in Alabama, where African-American women die from breast cancer at rates roughly 60 percent higher than non-Hispanic white women. Both Meneses and Demark-Wahnefried have pioneered innovative interventions to address health disparities and assist cancer survivors.

Meneses is professor and associate dean for research and scholarship in the UAB School of Nursing. Demark-Wahnefried is professor and Webb Endowed Chair of Nutrition Sciences in the UAB School of Health Professions and the associate director for cancer prevention and control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I have much appreciation for Dr. Demark-Wahnefried and Dr. Meneses for their interest in my professional development,” says Royston. "Dr. Meneses has been an invaluable resource and has taught me the value of networking and following up.

“The support of the Susan G. Komen Graduate Training in Disparities Research Grant means so much to me,” Royston adds. “I am able to focus on my dissertation research with limited financial burdens. The training portion of the program has provided me with a rare opportunity to become more involved with community outreach and engagement.”

Eat your greens

So has her time in the lab convinced Royston to eat more vegetables? “I’ve always enjoyed eating broccoli,” she says. “My research has encouraged me to tell all my friends and family members to make sure they’re eating their fair share of it. If they hate broccoli, they can always eat more cabbage, asparagus and cauliflower.”