Assist. Prof. Towle-Weicksel Awarded $20K Start-Up Grant
RIC Assistant Professor Jamie Towle-Weicksel demonstrates for her students how to use a Rapid Chemical Quench in her lab in RIC’s Clarke Science Building. (Photo credit: Zoey Wang.)
RIC Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jamie Towle-Weicksel has been awarded a $20,000 biomedical research grant by the Rhode Island Foundation to fund her cancer research.
Foundation grants are intended to provide seed funding for promising medical research projects and to help early-career researchers advance their projects to the point where they can compete for national funding.
Towle-Weicksel was also the recipient of a $25,000 RI-INBRE grant in 2016, which helped get her cancer research off the ground.
“Cancer is all around us,” she said, “but we still don’t understand why cancer happens. As a scientist, I want to know why.”
Towle-Weicksel’s specialty is DNA repair. She explained that our DNA is constantly being bombarded on a daily basis by harmful radiation and chemical agents. If the damage to our DNA isn’t repaired properly it can lead to life-threatening illnesses.
“When the DNA in a cell is damaged,” she explained, “the cell recruits enzymes to fix the damage. As you know, DNA appears as double strands. Damage to it could result in a partial break or complete break in the DNA strands.”
One DNA repair enzyme – POLQ – is responsible for fixing double-strand breaks. Yet if it is not functioning properly it can cause further damage to the DNA during repair by introducing mutations. These poorly functioning DNA repair polymerases (often called variants) are due to changes in the amino acids that make up the structure of the polymerases and can alter the function. Such variants have been found in the tumors of patients with melanoma.
“We know that POLQ is involved in DNA repair but we don’t know why we’re finding variants of POLQ in patients with melanoma,” said Towle-Weicksel.
Her interest in the link between the POLQ enzyme and melanoma was triggered during her postdoctoral work at the Yale University School of Medicine in collaboration with the Yale SPORE in Skin Cancer Center, where she worked from 2012-2015 alongside some of the world’s leading experts in the cancer.
At the SPORE center, tumors of patients with melanoma are removed and the DNA sequenced (read for mutations). What Towle-Weicksel noticed was that POLQ variants continuously appeared in the screenings.
“No one has looked at a mutation of POLQ that may not be structurally sound or functioning properly,” she said. “I’m examining what a mutation of POLQ might look like structurally and functionally. Does it have any changes that might alter its function? Is it still able to repair DNA? And what would its potential role be in melanoma?”
When Towle-Weicksel joined the faculty at RIC in 2015, she honed in on this enzyme as the focus of her research. Her dream, she said, was to work at a small, primarily undergraduate, learner-centered institution because she loves working with students.
Two undergraduate chemistry majors, minoring in biology, have been driving her research: Lisbeth Avalos and Ashley Rebelo.
“All the research I did at Yale is done by these students, using the same instruments,” she said. They synthetically make human mutations of POLQ enzymes, they study how the mutations affect the function through various biochemical tests and they report their findings at poster sessions.
In the summer of 2016 Rebelo and Avalos presented at the RI-INBRE Symposium at URI. In 2017 they presented at the Harry Allen Symposium at Clark University and won a poster prize of $250 and a plaque for their research. And recently at RIC they presented at the CRCA Spring Expo Poster Session.
“When I was an undergrad, I had the opportunity to work in a research lab and it was a life-changing experience,” said Towle-Weicksel. “There’s nothing better than giving my students that opportunity and seeing their excitement.”
“If all goes well, we hope to publish our findings and present it to the science community. We’re not trying to find a cure for cancer; we’re trying to find out why it happens. Once you look at cancer from the molecular level then you can start introducing treatment and ultimately find a cure,” she said.
The Rhode Island Foundation encourages biomedical researchers throughout Rhode Island to apply for start-up grant support for laboratory, clinical and population-based research.