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Research / Discovery

Professor in Biochemistry applies radiation to cancer research

May 10, 2010

Jennifer Nyborg, professor of biochemistry, cannot contain her enthusiasm when describing her lab's experiments involving radioisotopes.

The Nyborg lab staff (from left): Neelam Sharm, Prof. Jennifer Nyborg, Young Mi, Tony Wang, Jennica Colean, Dinaida Egan, and Lindsey Long.

"The beautiful thing about radiation”, she says, “is that it is easy to control. In my view, there are no other techniques that come close to working as well. Radiation gives you clean, quantitative results.”

The choice to use radiation implies that all lab occupants must undergo basic training with the Radiation Control Office. Further training is required for the four lab workers engaged specifically in radiation experiments, including graduate students, technicians and post-doctorates.

Virus as a model system

Nyborg’s research focuses on the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV-I), a simple virus that produces less than a dozen proteins and therefore serves as a straightforward system to study cancer. Similar to HIV, when the virus infects a cell, it duplicates its RNA into a double stranded DNA, which becomes part of the cell’s genetic material. The viral genes are treated the same way as cellular genes, and the Nyborg group uses the viral DNA as a model to study how these genes are turned on and off.

“The DNA serves as a template and is copied into RNA, and finally translated into proteins. One of the viral proteins, called Tax, is responsible for causing infected cells to become leukemic. It’s a great model system for examining how cellular genes are regulated and how cancer is initiated,” Nyborg explains.
One of the central questions in biology pertains to how genes are turned on.

“However you look at that question”, Nyborg argues, “you need to look at the RNA being made, and to be able to see this, you generally need to use radiolabeled nucleotide triphosphates. We continue using this virus as a model system because it provides a great model for examining fundamental questions in biology.

The use of radiation, according to Nyborg, is the most effective way to achieve these results, which would otherwise prolong the experiments for days or even weeks.

The beauty of radiation

The Nyborg lab experiments utilize mostly P-32 labeled nucleotides. The radiation is incorporated into the RNA, which allows the group to observe the labeled RNA. “If a gene is turned on to a high level, such as a 200-fold increase, you will see 200 times more radiation in that lane than in the control lane. I like working with P-32, because you know where it’s at, you can easily follow it, and you can protect yourself by using a shield,” Nyborg clarifies.

Although there are non-radioactive alternatives in some cases, Nyborg finds that radiation facilitates the experiments by providing results within just a couple of hours, including the exposure time. “In our study of cancer, our research has discovered that the Tax protein causes other cellular proteins to become phosphorylated, so you can add P-32 labeled gamma ATP, and the entire protein becomes radioactive. The results can be analyzed in minutes because detection is so efficient.“

Dr. Nyborg has been a professor at the Department of Biochemistry since 1990. Her research involves the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV-I) and is part of the team who was recently awarded a $7.8 Million grant from the National Institute of Health.

Read more stories in the Radiation Control Office Newsletter [PDF].

Contact: Fernanda Dore
Phone: (970) 491-4835