Carnegie Mellon University
October 20, 2020

Biology Professor Huaiying Zhang Receives NIH Grant to Study Mechanisms of Cancer Growth

By Ben Panko

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Chemical Engineering Huaiying Zhang has received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how abnormalities in the nuclear organization of a type of cancer cell affects their development.

Typically, a human cell can only divide a certain number of times before it dies, with this process being regulated by the length of its telomeres, a sequence of nucleotides at the end of the cell's chromosomes. Most cancers can get around this restriction by reactivating the enzyme telomerase to maintain the telomeres' length and allow them to keep dividing. But 10% to 15% of cancers use a different method to keep dividing infinitely called alternative lengthening of telomeres (ALT).

ALT cancer cells typically show many abnormalities in the layout of their nuclei, and these distinctions are often used in diagnosing this type of cancer. Scientists have theorized that targeting these abnormalities could be a useful form of cancer treatment since, unlike more general treatments such as chemotherapy, these targeted therapeutics would avoid harming normal cells that lack the abnormalities.

Scientists still have little understanding of how exactly these abnormal cell features develop and contribute to cancer growth. Zhang has proposed a liquid-liquid phase separation model for the abnormalities' assembly and function. To investigate that hypothesis, Zhang will collaborate with Associate Professor Ulrike Endesfelder from the Department of Physics, Professor Kris Dahl from the College of Engineering and Associate Professor Roderick O’Sullivan from the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Cancer Center.

"It's so exciting as a new professor to be able to bring together a group of people to do meaningful work on cancer research," Zhang said. "Our results can inspire novel strategies for the detection and treatment of ALT cancer targeting its unique nuclear organization."

The award number is U01CA260851.