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On the Path of Discovery

Cancer researcher Clint Stalnecker ’09 has returned to his alma mater to teach and inspire the next generation of Albright students.

By Hilary Bentman

Cancer has touched Clint Stalnecker’s life – directly and indirectly – for years.

While studying biochemistry at Albright, he interned with a pharmaceutical company developing an up-and-coming class of drugs for the treatment of cancers.

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Clint Stalnecker

After he graduated in December 2009, Stalnecker remained on campus to teach a spring chemistry laboratory, after instructor Eileen Walker succumbed to an aggressive cancer.

And in graduate school, Stalnecker sat by the side of a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

“Cancer is one of those fundamental challenges that every generation has,” says Stalnecker. “But the amount of discovery we’re making in the field is so rapid.”

Stalnecker is part of that discovery. He recently completed his doctorate at Cornell University, where his research has focused on developing novel therapeutics for treating the disease. His work has resulted in both patents and publications.

While Stalnecker continues to conduct some research at Cornell – traveling to Ithaca, N.Y., weekly – he has returned to his alma mater to teach. For the last couple of semesters, Stalnecker has been running some chemistry laboratories at Albright as a visiting instructor, while also mentoring students and engaging them in his research.

That research is focused on small molecule inhibitors to target a cancer cell’s change in metabolism. The idea is to starve the cell of nutrients, specifically targeting glutamine, an amino acid that cancer cells prefer.

“Cancer, as a basic definition, is uncontrolled growth. A cancer cell needs to double its contents in order to grow and divide, therefore it becomes reliant on basic building blocks to convert to cell mass,” explains Stalnecker. “One of the challenges for treating cancer is that each cancer needs the right combination of drugs. What this approach represents is a new tool.”

Stalnecker has recruited two seniors, Trey Eberly and Trevor Mastria, to assist in his research. The students are testing a derivative of a cancer drug that is currently in clinical trials, using fluorescence to determine how well the drug is binding to the enzyme target.

The importance of the work is not lost on the students. “It’s surreal to be doing this, especially as an undergrad,” said Eberly, a biochemistry major. “The research we’re doing could potentially directly improve someone’s life.”

For Stalnecker, tackling cancer is about more than just laboratory science. It’s also about connecting with real patients, putting a face and a name on the disease.

To that end, he has been volunteering at the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, sitting in on support groups to talk to patients about the research being conducted to combat the disease. He’s also been involved in an outreach program through Cornell to explain the research to the general public in lay language.

The experiences have provided Stalnecker with invaluable perspective. “Interacting with people undergoing chemotherapy, it’s a different side of it. You’re not just writing papers or in the lab,” he says, noting that some of the people he’s met over the years have succumbed to cancer.

“If you look throughout history, the most landmark discoveries have come from passion. The human aspect gives you that motivation.”

Reflecting on his academic and career trajectory, the Berks County native can’t help but chuckle at the irony. He initially didn’t want to go to college; his plan was to graduate high school and get a job. Fast-forward a few years and Stalnecker not only has his doctorate, but he’s eying postdoctoral studies. His plan is to leave Albright in the winter to pursue this next step.

Life, as Stalnecker puts it, is not a linear path, “but it’s most rewarding when you look back on it.”

Although his return to Albright will be brief, it has certainly been rewarding, especially getting to take advantage of the modern Science Center – which was under construction while he was an undergrad – and getting to know the next generation of students.

“Albright always felt like home. I don’t know if I’d be this good of a researcher or teacher if not for Albright,” he says. “At Cornell, I was surrounded by people who went to big-name schools, and I did well. Albright prepared me really well for that.”

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