Students win awards for research into liver disease, cancer and insomnia

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Targeting a range of diseases and disorders, three University of Houston students won awards at a recent symposium for research in liver disease, cancer and insomnia.

The Intercultural Cancer Council (ICC) recently hosted its 9th Biennial Symposium on Minorities, the Medically Undeserved and Cancer in Washington, D.C. The ICC promotes policies, programs, partnerships and research to eliminate the unequal burden of cancer among racial and ethnic minorities and medically undeserved populations in the U.S. and its associated territories.

Among the 1,500 who attended this ICC symposium, UH students accounted for 18 of the 300 students from across the nation who participated. Three UH students from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) swept the undergraduate research competition, taking home half of the six awards handed out in that category. Each received a medal to recognize their achievements and a cash award of $500.

"We are extremely proud of all our students who represented the University of Houston," said John Bear, dean of UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "And we're particularly pleased with the acknowledgement received by our three outstanding students who presented award-winning work, as well as commend the faculty members for engaging undergraduates in the research process."

Jose Figueroa, a senior biology major in NSM's Biology and Biochemistry department at UH, won his poster award for research in biological clocks. Also known as circadian rhythms, biological clocks are the mechanisms that control sleep/wake cycles in living organisms. Working in the Neurobiology Laboratory with Michael Rea, UH professor of biology and biochemistry, Figueroa assists with the lab's focus on understanding the biological clock so that it may eventually lead to therapeutic agents that can treat sleeping/waking disorders, such as advanced sleep phase syndrome, jet lag and insomnia.

The results of Figueroa's research show that pupillary light response studies could provide a useful system for high throughput screening of drugs that regulate mammalian circadian rhythms. This would be a more cost-effective approach to the more traditional phase shift experiments that are time-consuming and costly to perform.

"My research could ultimately provide a test that may be able to identify drugs to attenuate light-induced phase shifts by simply running them through pupillary light experiments," Figueroa said. "It's a simple and relatively inexpensive way of determining the effectiveness of the drugs, and I hope it will save researchers time and money."

Also out of NSM's Biology and Biochemistry department, Adham Bear, a senior biochemistry major, works with Susan Martinis, associate professor of biology and biochemistry at UH. Winning an award for his poster presentation, Bear's research is mainly concerned with protein-tRNA interactions during the process of protein synthesis, specifically those that take place during the process of aminoacylation, the binding of the amino acid to the tRNA molecule. This understanding of the mechanisms involving protein synthesis can be used to further the understanding of gene expression, which could have an impact on diseases such as cancer, as well as in the creation of new antibiotics.

"Gene expression is how DNA is expressed," Bear said. "It's basically what cancer is all about. Cancer is caused when a gene is overly and uncontrollably expressed, so if we could develop a way to control gene expression in abnormal cells, then we would be able to control the growth of tumors. To reach that point, we need to have a strong basic understanding of the process of gene expression."

A third student and winner from NSM's Biology and Biochemistry department, Marisa Rodriguez, graduated from UH this May with her bachelor's degree in biology. With research she performed in the Pediatric Oncology Program at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital last summer, Rodriguez won an award for her oral presentation on liver development.

"The focus of my project was to identify genes whose activity is regulated by the Prox1 transcription factor that can turn the activity of other genes on or off," Rodriguez said. "The alpha-1 protease inhibitor 5 gene displayed continuous expression, allowing us to propose that it is involved in embryonic liver development. By understanding how Prox1 is involved in this, we can better understand how the liver develops normally, and by knowing that, we can pinpoint where developmental problems due to disease occur compared to the normal development of the liver."

All three students are members of the Houston Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (HLSAMP). Led by Program Director Christopher Miller, a UH graduate student and staff member, HLSAMP is a scholar enrichment program dedicated to increasing the number of minority students earning bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, while preparing them for entry to graduate programs. The ultimate goal of HLSAMP is to increase the number of doctoral graduates and professors from underrepresented groups. Established in 1999, HLSAMP is funded by a five-year NSF grant.

"It's so rewarding to take part in mentoring these students and witness their enthusiasm and dedication," Miller said. "At the ICC symposium, it was noticed many times that UH consistently had the best representation at the workshop sessions and was the only group of students at each session with all members of the group present. This is truly indicative of the dedication our students possess."


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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