Research Awareness Day 2017

November 25th, 2017 marked the annual Research Awareness Day (RAD) held by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society (BUGS). One of the most prominent undergraduate research events of the year with over 80 undergraduate attendees, RAD featured a full day of rapid-fire presentations by 10 different biochemistry professors, lunch, and a poster fair featuring graduate and undergraduate students alike. With the diversity in the research topics of the different professors, there was something for everybody, not just those majoring in biochemistry.

Once again, RAD 2017 was a great event to learn more about research, network with profs, and to get excited about science. You definitely do not want to miss out on RAD if you have the chance, but for those that didn’t make it to RAD 2017, here’s a glimpse at what the professors talked about:

Dr. Albert Berghuis

As the chair of the biochemistry department, Dr. Berghuis gave a brief snapshot of biochemistry at McGill, past (biochemistry is one of the oldest departments at McGill!) and present, before presenting his lab and his current research. The Berghuis lab centers around structural biology and drugs: the development of anti-cancer drugs, the identification of fungal drug targets, and various other drug related topics. But no topic is as pressing as the central feature of the Berghuis lab: antibiotic resistance. Taking a structural biology approach, using techniques such as x-ray diffraction, NMR, scattering, and electron microscopy, the lab seeks to use structures of bacterial enzymes that confer antibiotic resistance to develop new, better antibiotics.

Dr. Jose Teodoro

The Teodoro lab is in equal parts biochemistry and virology, as their primary focus is to learn how to kill cancer cells using viruses that only seem to kill cancer cells by honing in on specific cellular features that only cancer cells possess. For example, the chicken anaemia virus, which causes anaemia in chickens, only targets and kills rapidly dividing cells by interacting with the Anaphase Promoting Complex/Cyclosome. While this destroys chicken hematopoietic stem cells, it is fantastic news for cancer biologists since cancer cells also tend to divide rapidly. Furthermore,the chicken anaemia virus is small, and its only function is to target and destroy rapidly dividing cells. The Teodoro lab also works on p53, a very well known gene that encodes a tumour-suppressing transcription factor, and its effects on tumor angiogenesis.

Dr. Ian Watson

The Watson lab focuses on melanocyte biology in melanoma. 50% of melanomas have a hotspot mutation BRAF, and 25% have a hotspot mutation in NRAS, both of which are mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) regulators, and are druggable targets. The goal of the lab is to develop a therapeutic strategy for long-term survival, as many current techniques show initial promise but no increase in the rates of long-term survival. The Watson lab created stable Cas9-encoding mice with which genome manipulation can be easily done, and they also collect samples from patients who underwent checkpoint inhibition therapy, so they have excellent models for melanoma, the poster child for precision therapy of the future.

Dr. Alba Guarné

One of the newest additions to the McGill biochemistry department, hailing from McMaster University, the Guarné lab studies genome stability and DNA-protein interactions. DNA needs to be extremely condensed to fit into the tiny nucleus of the cell. Almost all DNA processes require the DNA to be decondensed. Once this occurs, the DNA is under constant attack by many components of the cell. Over time, this constant attack can lead to significant mutations in the DNA if it weren’t for the DNA repair mechanisms that prevented the accumulation of mutations. One of the projects the Guarné lab is currently undertaking is the analysis of DNA mismatch repair, specifically studying how the mechanism can discern which of the two DNA strands contain the mutation. All this is done through structural biological techniques such as x-ray diffraction and EM microscopy.

Dr. Janusz Rak

The Rak lab, at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, is a cancer and angiogenesis laboratory, asking questions related to the complexities of diseases. One disease the Rak lab studies specifically is glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer that kills nearly 100% of patients due to the tendency for the tumour to hemorrhage in the brain, and its peculiar penchant of forming blood clots elsewhere, such as the leg, demonstrating the interactivity of cancer. The lab is interested in the unconventionally connectivities of cells — one that does not involve neither the neural nor the endocrine system. Glioblastoma cells exemplify this lack of convention as they seem to communicate using extracellular vesicles, which Dr. Rak described as “motherships that can change things in different ways”. Techniques used in Dr. Rak’s lab include atomic force microscopy and liquid biopsy.

Dr. Uri David Akavia

The Akavia lab is interested in metabolism bioinformatics in cancer, conducting computer modelling of the metabolism of the entire cell, specifically in cancer cells. The lab also intentionally changes genes known to be involved in metabolism using Cas9, and observes and models the consequences. (This leads to some pretty wild flow charts). Ultimately, the Akavia lab seeks to examine how cancer metabolism makes the cell resistant to treatment or developing cancer, and to develop treatment options from the results.

Dr. Bhushan Nagar

The Nagar lab uses structural biology techniques, specifically x-ray crystallography, to decipher molecular mechanisms that underlie diseases. The lab has a diverse range of research interests, such as analysis of IFIT proteins, members of the innate immunity which interact with viral RNAs to block their replication; AvrA, a bacterial protein that blocks immune signalling in the host cell to promote successful infection by the bacteria; and lysosomal enzymes, a subset of acid hydrolases whose mutations lead to lysosomal storage diseases. The Nagar lab hopes to use information gleaned through structural analysis to develop better therapeutics, such as drugs and pharmaceutical chaperones, for associated diseases.

Dr. Alain Nepveu

The ultimate goal of the Nepveu lab is to develop a novel cancer treatment by exploiting vulnerabilities of the cell (not JUST rapid divisions, but other characteristics as well), as well as examining base excision repair. The Nepveu lab uses mouse models and a lot of different assays to collect the data. Dr. Nepveu also stressed the importance of starting research early, and that you don’t need to have prior research experience to conduct interesting experiments in the lab — the skills you learn from making pizza at your part-time job can be transferred to running a PCR! But ultimately, you should not be shy to approach professors to ask about getting research experience.

Dr. Jason Young

The Young lab’s primary focus is on chaperones, specifically the Hsp70s and 90s, which anyone can learn about in GREAT detail if they take BIOC 212/ANAT 212 from the man himself, but Dr. Young’s RAD presentation was about how to get involved in research, in which he also stressed that you don’t need research experience to get involved in research at the undergraduate level, and that there are many classes such as the 396s and independent research courses available to students, providing a helpful and resourceful end to the rapid-fire talks.

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