Research Specialist Awards Highlight Important Work of Staff Scientists

January 11, 2017 | by Katie Neith

Two City of Hope scientists, Aaron Adamson, Ph.D., and Li Zheng, Ph.D., have been awarded Research Specialist (R50) Awards from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The Research Specialist Awards — granted for the first time in 2016 — were designed to support exceptional scientists who are working in a cancer research program, but do not desire to pursue independent investigator status. According to the NCI grant announcement, the award “is intended to provide desirable salaries and sufficient autonomy so that individuals are not solely dependent on grants held by Principal Investigators for career continuity.”
As a staff scientist, Adamson has spent the past six years working in the lab of Susan Neuhausen, Ph.D., The Morris & Horowitz Families Professor in Cancer Etiology & Outcomes Research in the Department of Population Sciences, to discover and characterize inherited pathogenic mutations in breast and ovarian cancers. His primary role in Neuhausen’s unit has been conducting high-throughput sequencing of breast and ovarian cancer cases and downstream annotation of the mutation results to identify causal, pathogenic mutations. For those mutations that can’t be readily classified, he performs molecular biology assays to assess whether they are responsible for cancer development.
“Our current research focuses on the first large sequencing study to discover genes that predispose to breast cancer in Hispanics,” says Adamson. “Because my salary will be covered by this R50 for five years, we can expand upon our current projects while also pursuing new directions of research.”
In addition to the research Adamson has performed in Neuhausen’s laboratory, he has also had the opportunity to take part in collaborative studies led by other researchers at City of Hope.
“It is difficult for Ph.D. level scientists to obtain desirable positions in an academic setting without running their own laboratory; a component of a successful laboratory is writing, which is something I do not enjoy,” explains Adamson. “I have always preferred spending the majority of my time performing experiments in the laboratory, and this R50 provides me with the funding to continue to conduct bench science.”
For the past 15 years, Zheng, assistant research professor in the Department of Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics, has been working for two NCI-sponsored R01 research programs investigating the multiple genetic and epigenetic alterations in our genome that lead to cancer. Specifically, the research team—led by Binghui Shen, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Cancer Genetics and Epigenetics—aims to study the roles of structure-specific nucleases, typified by flap endonuclease 1 (FEN1) and DNA2 nuclease/helicase in maintaining genome integrity and suppressing cancer development. These two research programs have been continuously funded by the NCI for 20 years.
“The new R50 Research Specialist Award, which cover my salary and travel expense, offers me an excellent opportunity to pursue my research career within Dr. Shen’s research programs,” says Zheng. “It provides essential funding to support a stable research environment to execute the studies proposed in two R01s.”
Since 2001, Zheng has worked with other people in the Shen’s group to successfully define the structure and function of FEN1 and DNA2, and to determine how functional deficiency in these nucleases leads to genomic and epigenetic instability and cancer development. The work has been published in prestigious journals such as Nature Medicine, Molecular Cell and Nature Chemical Biology.
“More recently, we have discovered that FEN1 and DNA2 undergo multisite modifications in response to cell cycle progression and DNA damage,” says Zheng. “We have proposed that post-translational modifications (PTMs) of FEN1 and DNA2 are important mechanisms to regulate proper functions of FEN1 and DNA2 at replication forks.
“In the next five years, I will test this hypothesis and elucidate how FEN1 and DNA2 PTMs mediate their nuclease activities, protein-protein interactions and subcellular location,” he continues. “I also aim to establish targets on FEN1 and DNA2 PTMs for novel therapeutic regimens, and diagnostic or prognostic markers.”
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