7/03/2019 Peter Durantine

Students Track Down Symptoms of Down Syndrome

In the corner of a Franklin & Marshall College biology lab, senior Thang Ton arranged a series of vials containing mouse embryos afloat in clear liquid. 

“I’m putting the embryos through a solution dehydration process so that I can embed them in wax to study them better,” Thang said. 

Thang, and fellow senior and biology major Nina Dashti-Gibson, are working on a Hackman Scholar research project that involves the skeletal development and immune function in mouse models for Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21.

  • Biology majors Nina Dashti-Gibson and Thang Ton examine mouse models to understand when Down syndrome occurs in physical development. Biology majors Nina Dashti-Gibson and Thang Ton examine mouse models to understand when Down syndrome occurs in physical development. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Professor of Biology Clara Moore said their research goal is to determine when disruption from Down syndrome occurs in physical development, what pathways are disrupted, and how to treat the symptoms. 

“In the case of Down syndrome, you want to identify the symptoms in each organ system,” Moore said. “If we can learn where the problems arise, either in a fetus, a newborn or an adult, we can develop treatments that alleviate the inflammation or distress associated with Down syndrome.”

Thang, focused on abnormalities in the immune system, examines mouse organs like the spleen, but also bone marrow, where the immune system develops in adults. 

“I’m hoping to find that there is some correlation in the animal model compared to the humans,” he said. “We’ve looked at phenotypes and gene expression patterns, and now we’re looking at the B cells in the bone marrow.” 

Nina examines skeletal abnormalities in mice. She measures different characteristics of bone development in the mouse model.

“We know that there are certain skeletal phenotypes associated with Down syndrome, such as short stature, low bone mineral density, and high rates of osteoporosis,” she said. “Evidence suggests that these phenotypes originate during embryonic development. However, we don’t know exactly when during development they begin, and we don’t yet understand the mechanisms by which they occur.”

The student researchers enjoy theopportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor expert, and they embrace the independence they gain from doing their own research. 

“We’re involved in every aspect of the research, from literature searches to planning projects to purchasing supplies to finding protocols to carrying out experiments to analyzing data to troubleshooting to writing up results,” said Nina, who plans to attend medical school. 

Thang, the Quantitative & Science Center’s Biology head tutor, plans to become a biology teacher. “That’s the end goal; I want to teach,” he said. “I’m learning a lot here, learning that I like to teach.”

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