Junjun Liu, professor of biological sciences, has received a four-year $420,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study “How Usp16-Mediated Histone Deubiquitination Regulates Breast Cancer Cell Invasion.”
“The study is expected to reveal a new mechanism of metastasis regulation and may contribute to the development of novel approaches in the prevention and treatment of metastatic breast cancer,” Liu said.
Under an earlier NIH grant, Liu and students in his lab discovered the importance of a novel PLK1 substrate called Usp16 and its role in mitosis. Their paper was published in the Journal of Cell Biology.
Liu and his team will build on that research and a collaboration with scientists from the City of Hope.
“They found that certain proteins promote breast cancer invasion which is the first step to metastasis,” Liu said. “We’re looking at the other side of the equation, which is identifying proteins that inhibit cancer cell invasion.”
Specifically, the team will examine whether Usp16-mediated deubiquitination of histone H2A, a protein found in chromatin that plays a role in gene expression, inhibits epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and cancer cell invasion.
Liu currently has three graduate students and one undergraduate student working on his team. Lab research is extremely valuable to students, he said.
“It helps them understand classroom concepts a lot better. They learn about cancer cell biology, cellular and molecular biology, and protein biochemistry.”
Graduate student Jade Lolarga has worked on different types of cancer research for six years and on breast cancer research in Liu’s lab for 3 1/2 years.
“My research at Dr. Liu’s lab challenged me to learn more about protein interactions and pathways,” Lolarga said. “But when your experiment works, then it pays off! It is definitely a challenge, but Dr. Liu was always there to help me understand and answer my questions.
“He has been a great mentor in school, lab and life,” Lolarga added. “He even helped me get my first job in industry!”
For junior Alana Schonbrun, who plans to follow her bachelor’s degree with a master’s in biology, the opportunity for hands-on learning is invaluable.
“I’m learning the lab skills I need to do research. I find cellular biology and cancer research interesting. I want to learn how to do my own experiments.”