ETSU scientist working on ways to improve cancer prevention


JOHNSON CITY (September 15, 2014) – Dr. Yue Zou, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, recently garnered national funding to continue his research into a protein within the body and its involvement with cancer prevention.

The protein, Ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3-related – better known as ATR – is found in every human body and is involved in detecting DNA damage when a person’s cells are exposed to gene-damaging agents from the environment.

“ATR works to repair DNA damage from, for example, cigarette smoke exposure,” Zou explained. “When your cells are exposed to these kind of things, it generates genotoxins that cause gene damage. Those damages are supposed to be removed. If not, they generate mutations that ultimately cause cancer.”

In addition to serving an important role in regulating the body’s repair responses, ATR also appears to actually protect cells in the body.

“This is both good and bad,” Zou said. “ATR protects our normal, healthy cells from dying, which is good. But we have found it also protects cancer cells from dying. Because ATR can protect the cancer cell, it can grow larger and larger.”

While ATR is a needed protein inside the body and often serves a positive function, finding ways to stop it from protecting cancer cells is important for cancer treatment, Zou noted.

“You inhibit the ATR and then actually you can reduce the risk of cancer,” he explained. “Our goal is to stop ATR from doing what it does to protect the cancer cells, and maybe even get it to stimulate the killing of those cells.”

To do that, Zou noted, the mechanism of the relationship between ATR and cancer cells must be understood. Only then, he explained, can researchers identify a targeted way to modify the protein so it stops protecting cancer cells, but continues to protect healthy cells.

“When you target it, you have to be very specific,” Zou said. “ATR is involved in the regulation of so many pathways so you only want to target this one specific function of the protein.”

Through the National Institutes of Health grant for $316,000, Zou will continue studying ATR for the next three years. Zou, collaborating with Dr. Phillip Musich from the same department, has been studying this particular protein for a number of years.

In addition continued NIH funding, Zou’s work related to ATR is also being funded through an ETSU Research Development Committee grant that he received in the spring.

While his research is at what he calls “the very basic level” right now and focuses on inhibiting the ATR’s protective ability in relation to cancer cells, Zou said he hopes to eventually look into how to boost protein’s protective nature in cells where the added protection could prove beneficial.

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