"Just go for it!": Understanding Cancers Without Common Genetic Mutations
Cancer cells are characterized by their unlimited growth, while healthy cells only divide a limited number of times. This limit blocks excess cell replication and prevents DNA from building up harmful mutations. Cells control how many times they can divide using telomeres, long sequences of DNA that cap each end of chromosomes in the nucleus, which shorten each time a cell divides until the telomere is gone. When a cell senses the lack of telomeres, natural genetic processes prevent further DNA replication and cell division. Most cancer cells get around this mechanism by activating the protein telomerase, which extends telomeres and allows cells to continue dividing and build up more cancerous mutations. However, around 10% of cancer cells do not activate telomerase, instead rebuilding telomeres through other pathways that involve abnormal organization of DNA in the cell nucleus. There is no common genetic mutation among this type of cancer cells, making it challenging to develop targeted treatments.
Dr. Huaiying Zhang, Assistant Professor in Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, studies these alternative pathways and their underlying mechanisms. Her work has already shown that in these cancer cells, telomeres cluster together into droplets that include template DNA for telomeres and the cellular components needed to repair DNA. As part of the 4D Nucleome program, she aims to discover how the biophysical process that drives this clustering, called phase separation, can be targeted as a potential cancer treatment. This ambitious project wouldn’t be possible without the collaborative efforts of researchers across many scientific disciplines, says Dr. Zhang, who values the interdisciplinary nature of the research in her lab as well as with researchers across the 4D Nucleome program. A chemical engineer by training and now studying cancer biology, she is excited to work with other biologists and genomic researchers to bring together many kinds of expertise to tackle these challenging questions.
How does a chemical engineer end up researching the mechanisms of genetic abnormalities in cancer? “I’m just a curious person,” says Dr. Zhang. By following that curiosity to see how one research question leads into the next, studying the chemical properties of cell membranes transitioned to her work into other aspects of cell biology. Whether it was changing fields from engineering to biology, starting an academic career while balancing a family, or leading a project that will tackle challenging questions about cancer biology, Dr. Zhang spoke to the importance of not overthinking these scientific journeys, believing that it is important to “just go for it!”
Learn more about Dr. Zhang’s research here.