Students Conduct Breast Cancer Research Thanks to NIH Grant




Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Science has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study how Usp16-mediated histone deubiquitination regulates breast cancer cell invasion. Professor Junjun Liu, biological sciences, is the principal investigator. He’s mentoring three graduate students and one undergraduate. 

Graduate student Jade Lolarga said, “I’ve been working with breast cancer research in Professor Liu’s lab for 3½ years and I’ve been working on different types of cancer research for six years. Dr. Liu has been a great mentor in school, lab and life. He has given me so many opportunities and even helped me get my first job in industry!” 

“Students learn about molecular biology and how the cell cycle works in the context of cancer,” Dr. Liu said. “The breast cancer research is a continuation of work that we’ve done. In the previous NIHfunded work, we discovered the importance of a novel PLK1 substrate called Usp 16 and its role in mitosis and published a paper about it in the Journal of Cell Biology.” 

​The current work builds on that and a collaboration with City of Hope. “They found that certain proteins promote breast cancer invasion, which is the first step to metastasis. We’re looking at the other side of the equation, which is identifying proteins that inhibit cancer cell invasion.” 

The goal is to study whether posttranslational modification of histone H2A, a protein found in chromatin that plays a role in gene expression, inhibits epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and cancer cell invasion. 

Liu writes in his project narrative: “The study is expected to reveal a new mechanism of metastasis regulation and may contribute to the development of novel approaches in the prevention and treatment of metastatic breast cancer.” 

Lab research is extremely valuable to students. “It helps them understand classroom concepts a lot better. They learn about cancer cell biology, cellular and molecular biology and protein biochemistry,” Liu said. “Many of my graduate students become upper-division teaching assistants. Those upper-division classes are very specialized but the experience that students gain in the lab allows them to assist with classes such as Tissue Culture Laboratory and Recombinant DNA and Protein Laboratory.” 

Graduate student Lolarga noted: “I have the opportunity to study the cellular and molecular aspects of cancer research. My research at Dr. Liu’s lab challenged me to learn more about protein interactions and pathways. It’s definitely a challenge, but Dr. Liu was always there to help me understand and answer my questions.” 

Undergraduate student Alana Schonbrun said: “I’m learning the lab skills I need to do research. I find cellular biology and cancer research interesting. I want to learn how to do my own experiments. I graduate in 2021 and after graduation will work on a master’s degree in biology.” 

Lolarga added: “Working with tissue culture requires you to be in lab almost every other day of the week. There are times where I have to come back every few hours just to observe results, but when your experiment works, then it pays off!” 

In Professor Liu’s lab, the NIH grant is already paying off in supporting learning and student success. It may one day contribute to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.