Researchers look in microscope

Research: Powering the PossibleThree students saw three years of research pay off when their findings were published in one of the world’s top academic journals – bringing them a step closer to helping children with cancer.

Graduate chemistry students Roubina Tatavosian and Huy Nguyen Duc and undergraduate chemistry student Thao Ngoc Huynh authored an article about pediatric cancer tumors called diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPGs).

“We can influence the world of research.”

Their article, titled “Live-cell single-molecule dynamics of PcG proteins imposed by the DIPG H3.3K27M mutation,” appeared in Nature Communications, a Nature journal, on May 25.

The team’s multi-disciplinary research focuses on identifying genetic mechanisms in order to develop therapeutic treatments for children with DIPGs. DIPGs typically affect very young children and have the highest mortality rate of all child tumors. On average, children with DIPGs survive between nine months and two years.

Currently, no drug is available to treat children with DIPGs. These students’ research could change that.

Work that matters to children with cancer

So, how exactly – in layperson’s terms – might the students’ research save kids’ lives?

Previous studies of DNA from DIPG patients have identified recurrent gene mutations, but the studies couldn’t show how the mutations caused the tumors. So, researchers couldn’t develop an effective treatment.

The student research team developed and used a sophisticated technique called live-cell, single-molecule imaging, which allowed them to see how genetic processes lead to tumorigenesis – the formation of tumors.

This powerful imaging technique marks a paradigm shift in our understanding of DIPGs, said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Xiaojun Ren, PhD, a faculty member on the research team.

Through live-cell, single-molecule imaging, the research team found one single protein, called Chromobox 7, which can inhibit the DIPG tumor – i.e. stop the cancer.

“The groundbreaking concept is radically different from the previous models,” Ren said. “We’re hoping in the future, it will provide new therapies that can be used to save lives.”

Three researchers sit around computer monitor
CU Denver researchers are looking for a cure for pediatric cancer.

Getting published in a prestigious journal

Saving children’s lives is a big deal – and so is getting published in Nature Communications.

It’s quite rare and prestigious for students – especially undergraduate students – to get published in a large journal like Nature Communications, Ren said.

Almost immediately after it was published, requests began streaming in from other universities and researchers wanting to collaborate on the research – some from as far away as the United Kingdom. And since the publication, the student researchers have received multiple offers from medical and graduate schools.

Nature Communications is quite a milestone for the students,” Ren said. “Once we knew the paper was accepted, all the authors got together for a big celebration.”

An innovative environment for powerful research

In addition to the students, the research team consisted of three CU Denver faculty members: Ren, Associate Professor of Integrative Biology Christopher Phiel, PhD, and Professor of Chemistry Haobin Wang, PhD. Contributing authors also came from Columbia University, Michigan State University and Colorado State University.

While faculty members gave advice and devised experiments, the students did 80 percent of the work, Ren said.

Funding for their work came from the university’s Office of Research Services, the National Institute of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the National Science Foundation.

You may expect major publications and discoveries like this one to come out of Harvard University or MIT, Ren said. Now, you can expect them to come from students at CU Denver.

“At CU Denver, we can influence the world of research,” he said.

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