Victoria Belancio, PhD, is exploring "the dark matter of genomes" in an effort to better understand its connection to cancer and other human diseases. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)
The Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation recently awarded Tulane Cancer Center researcher Victoria Belancio, PhD, associate professor of structural and cellular biology, a three-year, $150,000 grant to support her investigations into rarely studied genetic elements that contribute to cancer.
Genetic instability is the underlying cause of all cancers, and several studies have focused on the mechanisms by which genes are mutated to initiate oncogenesis - the process through which healthy cells become transformed into cancer cells.
"However, roughly 50% of mammalian genomes - 'the dark matter of genomes' - has been systematically excluded from these studies because individual elements often can neither be easily distinguished from one another, nor properly mapped," said Belancio.
Belancio's lab team has designed molecular and bioinformatics tools that allow them to identify individual elements and expression patterns of a particular class of highly repetitive DNA sequences within the "dark matter" called Long Interspersed Element-1 (L1). L1 has enzymatic activities that introduce nearly random mutations into the genome, including genes that initiate or promote oncogenesis.
"The number of L1 elements present in individual human genomes varies in the human population," said Belancio. "However, the full extent of this variation and its clinical relevance are poorly understood. Our preliminary findings in mouse models and cancer patients support that this variation may play a role in human health, including cancer."
This project is designed to begin a rational approach toward a better understanding of the connection between L1 and human disease.
Jonathan Baynham (far right) and Tina Bouzon (far left) from The Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation visit with Dr. Victoria Belancio (second from left) and Dr. Prescott Deininger, Tulane Cancer Center director and holder of the Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation Chair, to learn more about Tulane's program to provide bioinformatics training experiences to female high school students interested in STEM careers. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)
Dr. Victoria Belancio recently received a second grant from The Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation - totaling approximately $78,000 - to support her program to provide bioinformatics training experiences to female high school students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.
Her trainees are among the competitively selected Emmy Noether Scholars - aspiring female research scientists who receive special recognition, networking assistance and scholarships to help support their graduate-level education from the Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation.
The funds awarded were used in part to purchase high-powered computers the trainees will use to investigate the genetics of normal and diseased tissue samples. The data they collect - bioinformatics - will be useful in a number of research projects at Tulane and beyond.
"The goal is to provide these extremely bright female high school students with research experiences that will help to jump-start their careers," said Belancio. "Trainees will learn how to generate a hypothesis, design and perform experiments, collect and analyze data and then summarize it for presentation. We want to give them an appreciation for what it takes to work in a science-based field."
In addition to hands-on training, previous scholars have benefited from being included as co-authors on scientific publications, a distinction that could help to jettison them to unique educational and career opportunities in the future.
"Another important goal of this program," said Belancio, "is for trainees to develop the ability and the confidence to help train future Emmy Noether scholars - and others - in the field of bioinformatics. They will acquire a skill set, utilize it hands-on, and then help to pass this knowledge along. My current scholar, who knew very little about bioinformatics when she started, is now assisting in the training of post-docs and graduate students here at Tulane! Instilling that level of poise and self-assurance is just as important as teaching the science in my opinion."
The Joe W. & Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation is currently accepting applications for the 2019 Emmy Noether Awards. Female high school seniors from Louisiana or Mississippi who have a 28 or higher ACT score and wish to pursue research-based graduate degrees in STEM fields are encouraged to apply by the March 29 deadline.
One gold medalist will be awarded up to $75,000 ($25,000 for each year they are in a graduate-level program up to 3 years), and two silver medalists will be awarded $25,000 each.
During National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Jordan Karlitz reminds everyone that colon cancer is preventable. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and Dr. Jordan Karlitz, associate clinical professor of medicine and director of the GI Hereditary Cancer and Genetics Program, reminds everyone that screening saves lives.
Q: Who is at risk for colorectal cancer?
A: Approximately one in 20 people will get colorectal cancer (CRC). Excluding skin cancer, it's the third most common cancer in men and women and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. Approximately 51,000 people per year die from CRC, and screening could save more than half of them. The truth is anyone - not just those with a family history - can get this disease, which is why we need to raise awareness and ensure that screening occurs when patients hit the appropriate age.
Q: What are the current screening guidelines?
A: Even as the overall incidence of CRC in the U.S. has been declining, multiple recent epidemiologic studies have shown that rates are rising in younger people (those below age 55). Because of this, the American Cancer Society changed their CRC screening guidelines last year, recommending that men and women of average risk (no GI symptoms, no family history) begin screening at age 45 instead of 50. The screening recommendation is even earlier for those with a family history of the disease, and detailed guidelines are available to determine screening age initiation in this patient group. Younger people with symptoms should take them very seriously, as rates are actually rising in those 54 years old and under.
Q: What are the symptoms?
A: Certainly if you see rectal bleeding, blood in your stool, or a change in your bowel habits you should consult your doctor. But it's important to realize that MANY colon cancers are asymptomatic, so just because you're not experiencing symptoms doesn't mean you shouldn't be screened. That's why following the screening guidelines is so important. Colon cancer is preventable through regular screening and polyp removal.
Q: What are the risk factors for CRC?
A: Many lifestyle-related factors - obesity, physical inactivity, diets high in red or processed meats, smoking, and heavy alcohol use - have been linked to CRC. In fact, the links between diet, weight, and exercise and colorectal cancer risk are some of the strongest for any type of cancer. Other risk factors include age; a personal history of colorectal polyps, cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease; a family history of polyps or CRC; having an inherited syndrome, such as Lynch Syndrome; type 2 diabetes; and racial or ethnic background. African Americans have increased incidence and mortality and are diagnosed at younger ages than other races.
A family history of an advanced adenoma in a first-degree relative is another important risk factor, and patients with this history should start screening beginning 10 years before the age at diagnosis of the youngest affected relative or age 40, whichever is earlier.
Q: Are there alternatives to colonoscopy for screening?
A: Yes, there are stool-based tests (such as the fecal immunochemical test or FIT), fecal DNA tests, CT colonography, and others in the pipeline. But as a gastroenterologist, I'm a big supporter of colonoscopy. This procedure gives me the ability to not only see polyps but to remove them at the same time. I can visualize the mucosa and see much smaller areas than the other tests can detect. And, if any of these other tests come back abnormal, we still need to do a colonoscopy anyway as a follow up. I understand not everyone will want a colonoscopy, but I try to encourage my patients to get over their concerns. The preps are much easier to tolerate now, with lower volumes and better tastes, and patients are actually put to sleep during the procedure itself, so they are generally comfortable and unaware it's happening.
Having said all of this, the best test is the test that gets done. The last thing we want is for people not to get tested.
If you are interested in learning more about screening colonoscopy, please contact the Tulane Endoscopy Center at 504-988-0978.
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