Explaining her choice of a research topic for her Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge entry, 17-year-old Ottawa-area student Romina Hassanzadeh says cancer recently touched her personally when her mom’s aunt died of breast cancer. She resolved to help fight the disease.
The Grade 12 researcher from Kanata’s All Saints Catholic High School puzzled together several pieces of information to reveal an intriguing new picture.
Puzzle piece one: Cancer cells often contain an overabundance of HIF1alpha (hypoxia induced factor-1 alpha), a protein regularly fingered as the culprit when cancer therapy is less effective than expected.
Puzzle piece two: Successful treatments of prostate cancer often results in reduced activity of HIF1alpha.
Puzzle piece three: On the ends of chromosomes are protective caps called telomeres, that function like tips at the end of a shoelace to prevent fraying. As people age, telomeres get shorter and shorter until the protection is lost and cells die.
Puzzle piece four: Telomerase enzymes can prevent and even reverse the deterioration of the telomeres ‘caps’. A key to cancer’s success is it hijacks the normal cell process to produce lots of telomerase enzyme, thereby enabling cancerous cells to multiply abundantly with telomere ‘cap’ protection.
Puzzle piece five: A recent study with mice cells showed lower levels of HIF1alpha protein coincided with lower production of telomerase enzymes.
That was the “aha moment.” Romina set out to treat breast cancer cells with a drug called echinomycin known to prevent the production of the HIF1alpha protein and study the impact, if any, on telomerase enzyme production.
After intense lab work, she made the key finding that human breast cancer cells treated with echinomycin had substantially lower levels of telomerase enzymes. This novel insight could one day impact medical approaches to cancer treatment.
“Romina’s results are preliminary but offer new understanding of how this drug might work,” says mentor Dr. Ian Lorimer, Senior Scientist, Cancer Therapeutics, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Associate Professor, University of Ottawa.
Romina says finding the time to do school and lab work was difficult but “(the SBCC) has been a wonderful experience; I highly recommend it to any student who’s interested in science.”