USF Team Researches Cancer, Honors Lost Student

by By Arvin Temkar, USF News

In 2014, Merak Melikian Hatounian transferred to USF from a community college near his home in Southern California. He loved his new school: the beautiful campus, the location in the city, friends and classmates.

“He was living his dream,” said his mother, Debra Melikian.

Merak, Debra Melikian, Dr. Jason Sicklick of UC San Diego
Merak, Debra Melikian, Dr. Jason Sicklick of UC San Diego

But not long after Merak arrived at USF, the 20-year-old began having severe headaches and fatigue. The symptoms got so bad he was taken to the ER twice. Meanwhile, Merak’s father was being treated for paraganglioma, a rare tumor that had become cancerous. Merak’s father’s oncologist, who noted that the father had a hereditary gene mutation that can lead to cancer, suggested that Merak get tested for cancer. It turned out Merak had another rare cancer: gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).

Merak, a business administration major, left USF to seek medical treatment in Southern California. He passed away in 2020. His father died in 2017.

Now, a USF professor and her students are helping to keep Merak’s memory alive at the university. They’re working on research that may contribute to understanding GIST.

Advanced Technology

Under the guidance of Professor Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, a team of four biotechnology graduate students are studying GIST in USF’s interdisciplinary life sciences lab.

The team is using a technique called CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) to remove two genes from cells derived from a patient with GIST. By doing so, they can learn more about how the genes affect the growth of cancer and what happens when cancerous cells are treated with Gleevec, a drug commonly used to treat GIST.

Because GIST is so rare, this research hasn’t been done before.

Advocating For Her Son

The research project came about when Debra Melikian contacted Mike Hughes, assistant vice provost of graduate enrollment, to tell him her son’s story.

“As I was home alone in my grief, I just started thinking about people who knew Merak,” she said.

She remembered Hughes from a campus tour she’d taken with Merak. After talking with Debra, Hughes approached Tzagarakis-Foster, who researches breast cancer, to see if there was any possibility of GIST-related research at USF.

“Even though GIST is not my research area, I thought there was definitely a way we could make this work,” Tzagarakis-Foster said.

Last fall, she found a few students, including Marta Bogaczynska PSM ’22, who said they’d be interested in studying GIST as part of their Advanced Research Methods class.

The Work Continues

After the class, Bogaczynska, who worked in cancer research before she enrolled at USF, decided to continue working on the project independently, leading to the current work with CRISPR technology. Tzagarakis-Foster found funding from a Koret Foundation grant to pay a team of student researchers to assist Bogaczynska.

“I feel very honored that I can work on this,” says Bogaczynska. The team aims to present its research as a poster presentation at the end of the semester and hopes to get a paper published. There’s even talk of collaboration with Jason Sicklick, a surgical oncologist at UC San Diego Health who studies GIST and who treated Merak.

Debra Melikian is pleased that USF can contribute to a cause for which she’s become a passionate advocate. She also is active in the Life Raft Group, a GIST advocacy organization.

“As Merak’s mother, I do not want Merak to ever be forgotten,” she said. “To be able to go back to one of the places Merak loved so much and to have them be so kind, compassionate, empathetic, and wanting to do something in Merak’s memory — it’s incredible.”

Marta Bogaczynksa, Muhammed Hamir, Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, Naomi Vinod, and Ricard Rubio
The research team studying Merak's rare cancer: Marta Bogaczynksa, Muhammed Hamir, Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, Naomi Vinod, and Ricard Rubio


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