SJU Biologist Earns Grant to Study Science of Cancer and Aging

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

PHILADELPHIA (Nov. 24, 2009) – The National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the 27 centers and institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a $163,000 grant to Julia Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, to pursue a research initiative into the science of cancer and aging.  Her research will focus on the maintenance of chromosome ends — called telomeres — and how telomeres function in both the aging process and the growth of cancer cells.

The telomeres being studied in Lee’s project act as a kind of protective cap for chromosomal ends — much like the plastic aglet at the end of a shoelace, for example — allowing cells to retain their biological information.

Still, said Lee, telomeres shorten with each round of cell division, limiting the life span of the cell. When the telomere can no longer protect the end of the chromosome, the cell dies. Yet in stem cells and cancer cells, an enzyme called telomerase is present that, as far as past research shows, helps extend the telomeres and therefore the life of the cell. Lee hopes that her research will lead to a better understanding of this natural maintenance.

“The life span of a cell may be determined by the shortening of the telomeres,” said Lee. “Shortening the telomeres is a good thing to turnover aging cells.” But when it comes to cancer, maintaining telomeres could allow cancer cells to live indefinitely.

“It’s a catch-22,” said Lee. “How do you try to shorten the telomeres of bad cells while prolonging the life of good ones?”

The NIH/NIA grant will be spent on utilizing baker’s yeast cells as a comparative model system, during which Lee will look at two specific proteins and ask how they are involved in telomere maintenance. By removing the proteins, then putting back the mutated forms into the cells, Lee seeks to understand how the absence, alteration, or presence of those proteins affects telomere maintenance. In the long term, knowing which parts of which proteins are necessary in protecting chromosome ends could lead to further advancement in both understanding the aging process and in the destruction of cancer cells.

Lee’s project has received funding for the next three years, which will not only go toward essential lab equipment and supplies, but also fund two summer scholars to work with her each year. She plans to involve both undergraduate and graduate biology students.

Media Contact

Patricia Allen, Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-3240,

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