Volume 10, Number 3 September 20, 2002

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Grad studies protein linked to cancer

By Elizabeth Frogley

Research done by a recent University of Saskatchewan graduate has helped uncover possible genetic causes of cancer.

Shawn Ritchie

Shawn Ritchie's interest in medical research led him to study the SRC protein, that can contribute to cancer when it is produced at high levels.

Shawn Ritchie, who just completed a PhD in biochemistry, studied a gene which produces a protein related to many cancers, including breast and colon cancer.

"Overabundance of the SRC protein has been observed in many cancers. The focus of research in the lab I worked in is to try and unravel the mechanisms responsible for this," Ritchie says

Ritchie worked with U of S oncology professor Dr Keith Bonham, whose lab at the Saskatchewan Cancer Centre specializes in studying genes related to cancer.

"I spent a year before I started graduate studies working in the plant sciences field, and although it was an excellent learning experience, I felt more motivated to work in a health sciences-related field. I have always had a keen interest in medicine and medical research," Ritchie says.

Ritchie's interest in medical research led him to study the SRC protein, a protein that can contribute to cancer when it is produced at levels higher than normal. He studied the gene that produces SRC to determine what causes excess production of this protein.

A gene is a segment of DNA with a particular purpose - in this case, the SRC gene acts as a blueprint for the production of a protein. The "promoter" region of a gene is responsible for regulating how much of the protein a gene produces.

To find the cause of the SRC protein overproduction, Ritchie studied one of the promoter regions on the human SRC gene. He hoped to understand exactly how the promoter region and the proteins that attach to it work together to "turn on" the SRC gene.

Ritchie's research was successful - he discovered and studied one of the proteins required for the activation of the gene's promoter region.

Ritchie also researched ways to decrease the amount of SRC protein produced by the SRC gene. He used so-called antigene technology, in which a strand of DNA binds to the promoter region of the gene, interfering with the structure of the promoter and binding of proteins responsible for SRC production.

Using this antigene approach, Ritchie was able to limit the amount of SRC protein the gene produced in lab experiments. However, the process of such a therapeutic approach is much more complicated in living cells, and Ritchie says more research is needed in this field of study.

Ritchie is now working at Phenomenome Discoveries Inc in Innovation Place, continuing his research. He'll be focused on projects involving gene expression and cancer metabolism, in collaboration with researchers from the Cancer Centre and other health sciences disciplines.

"The work involves an area of study called `metabolomics', which encompasses a lot of 'bioinformatics' and other computer-related activities - an area of research that I've very keen on and very excited about," he says.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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