After watching the documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies and having family members battle with cancer, Joana Mora’18 was determined to play a role in cancer research. This summer, under the advisement of Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Sasaki, she studied cancer by looking into whether RNF43, a protein coding gene mutated in many types of cancers, is a transcriptional target of p53, a tumor suppressor gene. Understanding their relationship helps explain how various forms of cancer begin.
Mora expressed p53 both exogenously and endogenously in order to look at the RNA levels of RNF43. To express p53 exogenously, Mora had to artificially increase the amount of p53 inside the cells. She split and transfected HeLa cells to artificially increase p53 expression. In order to endogenously express p53, she treated HeLa cells with the drug Actinomycin-D (Act-D) to induce the cells to increase expression of its own p53. Act-D does so by blocking machinery important in cell cycle and triggering p53-induced cell death. These cells were later prepared for RNA isolation, cDNA synthesis and polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
By doing this, she was able to quantify RNA levels in the cells and determine whether or not there was increasing amount of RNA of RNF43 being made, compared to that of the control groups. If so, it will confirm that RNF43 is a target of p53.
So far the results suggest an interaction between RN43 and p53. When p53 is expressed exogenously, RNF43 RNA levels do increase, indicating that RNF43 is a transcriptional target of p53. However, these results still need to be confirmed. Thus, Mora plans to use different types of cell, other than HeLa, that can better express p53 in order to obtain more consistent data.
Mora said that she has learned that this type of research mostly comes with failures and a need to constantly optimize one’s experimental design. The type of work involved in molecular biology research requires one to work both quickly and precisely. Despite the constant challenges that arise within this type of scientific research, she plans to continue this research project into the academic year. After Hamilton, Mora is planning to apply to medical school. She is particularly interested in surgical oncology.