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Innovation in cancer research

Innovation in cancer research

[photo of Caitlin Miron receiving an award from Navdeep Bains and Jim Banting]

Caitlin Miron received the Mitacs PhD Award for Outstanding Innovation from Navdeep Bains, federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and Jim Banting, Assistant Vice-Principal of Partnerships and Innovation at Queen’s.

In November, Chemistry PhD student Caitlin Miron received the Mitacs PhD Award for Outstanding Innovation. Ms. Miron discovered a DNA binder that could potentially “switch off” aspects of cancer cell development. The Mitacs award is given to a PhD student who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation during Mitacs-funded research. Ms. Miron’s award is one of seven given annually by Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that works with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and government to support industrial and social innovation in Canada.

Ms. Miron’s research focused on identifying and studying a family of chemical compounds that can bind to a specific form of DNA architecture implicated in the progression of diseases such as cancer and HIVC. Preliminary results show the compounds can stabilize the DNA and, like other DNA binders previously studied in the field, may have the potential to stop cancer development or metastasis. As such, this research may be useful in anti-cancer therapeutic agents, either alone or combined with other treatments.

“You can think about transiently singlestranded DNA as the chain of a necklace. The cellular machinery that reads and processes your DNA are like beads that move freely along that chain until they come to a knot. That knot is an unusual DNA architecture known as a guanine quadruplex. There are mechanisms by which the cell can unravel this knot, but if we can get there first and superglue it together, then the knot becomes a physical barrier, blocking the cell machinery from accessing the section of DNA beyond the knot. In the context of this metaphor, what we’ve found is essentially an excellent form of superglue,” says Ms. Miron. “This becomes relevant for anti-cancer applications because these quadruplexes, or knots, often form before sequences of DNA called oncogenes – sections that, if processed, will produce proteins that promote the development of various aspects of cancer. If we can block the beads – which are the cell machinery – from accessing that region of DNA, then we can potentially stop various aspects of cancer development or metastasis. At this point, we have relatively promising preliminary results in cancer cell growth inhibition with our binders.”

Ms. Miron completed her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Queen’s in 2013. In her second year of undergraduate studies, she began volunteering in the lab of Anne Petitjean, who specializes in supramolecular and biological chemistry. Ms. Miron continues her work with Dr. Petitjean for her PhD research and, like most graduate students, now helps to supervise undergraduate students herself.

The discovery – and the Mitacs award – captured attention across Canada.

[images of medic coverage of Ms. Miron's discovery]

In 2015 and 2016, funding through NSERC and Mitacs Globalink programs allowed Ms. Miron to do research internships at the lab of Jean-Louis Mergny at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology (EICB) in Bordeaux. “Using the Mergny team’s screening platform, I identified a promising DNA binder from a library of compounds made in our lab at Queen’s. After a year of making second-generation derivatives of this binder to modify its properties, I had the opportunity to take them back to this very interdisciplinary environment [at EICB]. I was able to take these compounds from expert to expert and learn all their different techniques.” The experience, Ms. Miron also notes, has allowed her to implement many of those experimental techniques in the research facilities at Queen’s.

The findings of Ms. Miron, Dr. Petitjean, and Dr. Mergny are expected to be published this year. This work, an excellent example of how fundamental research drives innovation, has the potential to be licensed for further development by pharmaceutical companies in the future.

[photo of Caitlin Miron, Anne Petitjean and members of the Petitjean Lab]
Caitlin Miron, Anne Petitjean, and three of the undergraduate students working in the Petitjean Lab: Isaiah Hasham, Yushi Liang, and Devni Elamaldeniya.


[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1-2018]