Current cancer treatments include drugs that target standard protein synthesis in cells, which can kill cancer cells, but also targets healthy cells. To address this issue, associate professor of biochemistry and Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) member, Hong Jin, is focusing on a non-canonical protein translation pathway, which will allow researchers to develop drugs with targeted specificity.

Jin is researching developmentally-regulated GTP-ase (Drg), a potential oncogene in lung adenocarcinoma that promotes tumor progression. She is also studying other non-canonical translation pathways that are related to lung and skin cancers.

“In cancer cells, somehow, the programming went wrong. It becomes invasive and does not respect the boundary of other cells and keeps growing,” said Jin.

Drg proteins are also universally conserved, meaning it is present in all lifeforms and must play a critical role in cell function; and in healthy cells, regulatory proteins will find improper proteins and select them for degradation. However, the precise function of Drg remains unknown.

Jin’s current hypothesis is that Drg helps with quality control of the protein translation pathway. Proteins, function-performing elements of life at the cellular and molecular levels, can become corrupted in cancer cells, which lack the proper checks and balance systems.

“Once we figure out the function of Drg, it will have lots of implications for other fields. We’re very close to figuring out its function at the molecular level, helping the protein synthesis machinery for a smooth journey in making new proteins, and I really look forward to the application side of the research,” said Jin.

Jin’s lab is currently developing a reporter system for further mechanistic studies, which would allow drug discovery researchers to determine treatment response. Jin is also looking forward to more RNA-centered research, due to its relation to protein synthesis, and citing it as an important part of research of the future.

“This research is really curiosity-driven, and fundamental. I was drawn to this type of research because I wanted to find the fundamental principles of life. I feel the secrets of life are so amazing and incredible and I want to see how the science leads us,” said Jin.

Hong Jin is affiliated with the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

Article courtesy of the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL)