U CHEMIST REVEALING MECHANICS OF CANCER
More than one million people in the United States develop cancer each year. However, two in every three people diagnosed with cancer today will survive at least five years, thanks to basic scientific research and the tireless work of the American Cancer Society.
Bethany Buck-Koehntop, assistant professor of chemistry at the U, is part of this effort. She is using a multidisciplinary approach of structural biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and cellular biology to investigate the role of certain proteins in DNA expression and regulation within the cell.
In cells, DNA methylation – the process of adding a methyl molecule to a strand of DNA – is an essential modification required for genomic stability, and for fixing certain genes in the “off” position. Aberrations in genomic DNA methylation patterns can lead to inappropriate gene silencing, and have been associated with cancer promotion and progression.
These findings prompted Buck-Koehntop to discern the regulatory mechanisms of DNA methylation in gene transcription by investigating the factors that are involved in modification, recognition, and translation of the methylation signal.
Within each cell, there are DNA-surface “readers, writers, and erasers.” Specific proteins and enzymes perform these important jobs – they bind to DNA strands and read data, write new markers, or erase signals altogether. For example, Methyl-CpG binding proteins directly read and interpret the methylation signal, making them ideal reporters of the methylation status in cancerous cells.
Bethany’s research group focuses on this particular family of protein “readers.” She hopes to understand what these proteins are doing at each stage of prostate cancer.
“Right now, we need the basic science in order to answer fundamental questions. Only then can we proceed to more complicated problems,” she says.
In September 2014, Buck-Koehntop was awarded an American Cancer Society Research Scholar Grant to continue her work. These grants support innovative cancer research across a wide range of disciplines to meet critically important needs in the control of cancer.
Each year, the Society receives approximately 2,000 requests for support of cancer research and for training of health care professionals. All proposals are subjected to multiple levels of rigorous and independent peer review to identify the most meritorious projects for funding.
For research scholar grants, in particular, applicants must be independent, self-directed researchers within six years of their first academic appointment. The maximum award is $165,000 per year, plus 20 percent allowable indirect costs, for up to four years.
Bethany received the maximum award, for a total of $660,000 plus indirect costs, which will support her basic research until 2018. Her lab currently employs three undergraduate students and two graduate students in addition to two postdoctoral researchers.
“It is vital to receive these types of early career awards,” says Bethany. “The ACS truly wants people to succeed and pursue cancer research. I’m grateful for the support.”