Skip to main content

Young Investigator: Laurel Black

By January 8, 2021December 18th, 2023NF1, Science & Research

Last year, we announced a $750,000 investment in promising young investigators, providing support to their innovative NF research projects. Now, we’re introducing some of these researchers: Laurel Black (Medical University of South Carolina) tells us about her focus on MPNSTs, her interest in fossil hunting, and why her research is so personal.


Tell us about life in a research lab. What's a typical day look like?

A typical day for myself in the Carroll laboratory is going over my experimental plans and organizing my time to try and make the most of my day. I meet with my mentor several times a week (virtual due to COVID-19) which usually occurs first thing in the morning to share experimental data and results. Typical days usually include performing cell culture work, immunoblots, immunocytochemistry-immunofluorescence and functional assays to investigate my targets of interest and how they may be contributing to MPNST cellular proliferation and survival. I am also testing several inhibitors to see what happens to these targets and if this slows or destroys the tumor cells. In the evenings I will read journal articles, modify or create my next day’s experimental plans and work on writing my publications and dissertation.

What are you hoping to learn from this project?

I am hoping that my project will yield a novel understanding of the role(s) that ErbB3, an up-and-coming oncogenic target of interest in many different types of human cancers, and calcium-mediated signaling contribute to in MPNST pathogenesis. ErbB3 has recently been implicated in the tumorigenesis and drug-resistance mechanisms in breast, prostate and non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSLC) but has yet to be explored in MPNSTs. Our laboratory has previously defined roles for EGFR and ErbB4 in MPNST cellular proliferation, survival and invasion, and I am very excited to help investigate ErbB3 mechanism in these biological functions. Calcium signaling is well established and it is both pro-and anti-tumorigenic. I hope to understand how a calcium signaling involved protein, CamKK2, which is downstream of Ras, contributes to MPNST pathogenesis. I worked as a biochemist for many years before returning to obtain my doctorate degree so unraveling and defining mechanism is my favorite aspect of my research.

What are your long-term research goals? 

My long-term research goals are to help discern specific inhibitors that can be used in combination to give to patients suffering with MPNSTs, as there are currently no clinically effective treatments available and surgical resection is oftentimes not possible.

Have attended any webinars/virtual conferences recently that have informed your NF research?

I attended the virtual NF Conference this year and had a great experience. Clinicians, research scientists, and patients from around the world attended the conference and it was extremely educational and allowed me to see what others are working on regarding helping NF, schwannomatosis and MPNST patients globally.

What does it mean to you to receive this funding from CTF?

I am extremely grateful to have been chosen as one of the awardees for the CTF Young Investigator Award. It is a great honor and privilege, one that I will do my best to utilize the grant award and my time as a Ph.D. student to the give back to the community and patients that suffer from NF-associated diseases by working hard at determining possible therapeutic treatments. CTF is important to me not just as a scientist, but also at a deeply personal level. My best friend has NF1 and he suffers from several dermal neurofibromas and plexiform tumors within his spine. I have watched him deal with the oftentimes debilitating pain over the years, as well as the mental impact fighting his disease has, and it is extremely important to me to try and identify possible treatments for patients like him. The first, and only, FDA-approved treatment for NF1 and symptomatic plexiform tumors is very exciting, however, we desperately need more treatment options for these patients. This award will help me to investigate therapeutic options that our laboratory has worked for many years to identify.

What do you like to do when you're not in the lab?

When I am not in the lab, I enjoy spending time with my sphynx cats at home and I am an avid fossil hunter. Charleston, SC has some of the largest fossil deposits of marine species, especially whale and shark, from several million years ago. Fossil hunting is very calming to me; I get to explore deep cut creeks and rivers looking for fossiliferous bearing layer for fossil teeth, bones and ancient artifacts. It is such a thrilling thing to be the first human to pick up and hold a fossil from 15 plus million years ago! I also love visiting and donating some of my fossil finds to the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston.


Information about the 2021 Young Investigator Awards and other funding opportunities from the Children’s Tumor Foundation are available here.