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Source: David Villanueva,;
and Stefan Bossmann, 785-532-6817,
Photos available: Download at
News release prepared by: Jennifer Torline, 785-532-0847,

Thursday, June 30, 2011


MANHATTAN -- A Kansas State University undergraduate is exploring the link between cancer research, treatment and detection by looking at a common tie: peptide bonds.

David Villanueva, senior in biology and premedicine, Baytown, Texas, has worked for two years in an organic chemistry laboratory that focuses on cancer research under the direction of Stefan Bossmann, K-State professor of chemistry. Villanueva works on synthesizing short peptide sequences, which can be used in the early detection of cancer.

“Our goal is to find a sequence that can detect the tumor while treating it at the same time,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva creates different sequences of peptides to understand which sequences more efficiently treat tumor cells. Peptides are molecules composed of amino acids that are linked by peptide bonds. When Villanueva creates these sequences, he attaches nanoparticles on one end of the sequence and a florescent dye on the other end.

Once a peptide sequence enters a tumor cell, an enzyme cleaves the sequence, which releases the fluorescent dye and helps to detect the tumor cell. At the same time, the magnetically activated nanoparticle heats up, creating hyperthermia. When that heat reaches a certain level, it starts killing the tumor cell since the cell cannot survive high temperatures.

“Everything you give the body has a certain toxicity to it,” Bossmann said. “We are trying to assign a sequence that can directly treat the tumor without damaging the surrounding cells. That is the whole key.”

Under Bossmann’s direction, Villanueva has received two cancer research awards from K-State’s Terry C. Johnson Center for Basic Cancer Research.

“Our lab would be nothing without gifted students like David,” Bossmann said. “They provide us with a completely new set of eyes and ask lots of questions. Without this constant discussion in the group, we would lose focus.”

Villanueva also does other various chemical experiments and performs basic chemical procedures such as distillations, thin layer chromatography, or TLC, and column chromatography. TLC is a technique that separates mixtures, and column chromatography is a method used to purify individual chemical compounds from mixtures of compounds. He also helps clean equipment.

Villanueva attended Garden City Community College on a cross-country scholarship and transferred to K-State after his sophomore year through the Kansas Bridges to the Future Program, a partnership with the National Institutes of Health that helps underrepresented minority students pursue careers in biomedical sciences. He then entered the Developing Scholars Program, which offers financial and academic support so students can perform research with faculty members.

Villanueva was placed under the mentorship of Bossmann and he began working in the organic chemistry lab. He got started with cancer research after attending a Developing Scholars Symposium and seeing another student doing cancer research.

“I was inspired by the student’s work and thought that if someone at my level could do this kind of research, then I could do it as well,” Villanueva said. “I wanted to be able to research the disease and figure out some way to help those with cancer.”

Villanueva will return to the lab in the fall to continue research and will graduate from K-State in May 2012. He plans to attend medical school to become a trauma surgeon and would eventually like to travel and become a doctor in underserved countries.

At K-State, Villanueva is the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, called LULAC, and is also involved with Sigma Lambda Beta International Fraternity Inc. He graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 2007 and is the son of Santos and Irma Villanueva of Mexico.