Pathfinders award shines a light on DNA packaging in cancer

Qian Du and Katherine Giles (Genomics and Epigenetics Division) will be developing a new way to look at DNA packaging in cancer cells, thanks to a grant from Sydney-based collective giving group, Pathfinders.

Jennifer Granger (Pathfinders), Katherine Giles, Qian Du and Simon Oaten (Pathfinders)

30 November 2017

Katherine Giles and Qian Du have been announced as the joint winners of the inaugural Pathfinders Award. The Award, a grant of $10,000, was established by the collective giving group Pathfinders to help kick-start an early-stage cancer research project at Garvan.

The Pathfinders Award was presented on Thursday 23 November at ‘Art of Science’, an event held at the Wentworth Galleries in central Sydney.

Both Katherine and Qian are final-stage PhD students in the Epigenetics Research laboratory within Garvan’s Genomics and Epigenetics Division. Their supervisor, Professor Susan Clark, says, “Both Kate and Qian are very talented and motivated and have a particular interest in how DNA packaging can change dynamically, and how this impacts on disease. They have worked closely together throughout their postgraduate studies from different angles to help address this complex question.”

At the Art of Science event, Katherine and Qian spoke about the complexities of packaging the equivalent of two metres of DNA into each of the cells in our bodies. They described how DNA is packaged tightly together with proteins in a structure called ‘chromatin’, and how this packaging can change in cancer. They went on to explain their winning Award proposal, which aims to develop a new way to investigate how chromatin is ‘remodelled’ inside cancer cells.

“We want to look, in a new way, at how chromatin changes in cancer cells,” Katherine said, “and we’re especially keen to focus on ‘chromatin remodellers’ – which are proteins in the cell that bring about changes to DNA packaging. We know that these proteins are important in cancer, and we want to watch how they act in prostate, breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancer cell lines.”

“Most techniques that look at chromatin changes give a static readout ­– like a photo, rather than a video,” said Qian, “but we want to watch the changes as they happen. To do this, we’ll be ‘labelling’ chromatin with a fluorescent tag that changes colour as the chromatin structure shifts.

“You can think of fluorescence as being like the glow-in-the-dark stars on a kid’s bedroom ceiling – with fluorescence we can watch changes in a cell, as they happen, by using sophisticated microscopes such as we have at Garvan.”

Katherine adds, “Once we have established our fluorescence technique, we’ll be exploring how different cancer therapies respond to changes to chromatin structure – and whether this might differ from person to person.

“We’re delighted to have the opportunity to take our idea forward, and uncover a new understanding of DNA packaging in cancer. Thank you Pathfinders!”

Simon Oaten, who heads Pathfinders, said, “We’re delighted to support Katherine and Qian in initiating this fascinating research into DNA packaging and look forward to hearing the results from this innovative project.”