Yuliang Wu, University of Saskatchewan
Can you describe your area of research and how it is helping address a health-related issue in Saskatchewan?
Trained as a biochemist, my research is focusing on a family of proteins called helicase. In this SHRF-funded project, we will focus on a helicase named DDX41. Mutations in DDX41 cause leukemia diseases, myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The goal of this project is to identify drugs targeting DDX41 for these blood cancers treatment.
The incidence of MDS and AML is increasing with the aging population. The population of Saskatchewan is 1.17 million, more than 16% of which are ≥65 years of age (Statistics Canada 2018). The older adult population is growing faster than all other age groups because, overall, people are living much longer than before. Consequently, the number of patients diagnosed with MDS/AML is expected to significantly increase, which makes the results of this project of particular interest to the residents of Saskatchewan.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
To be able to contribute something for the battle with cancer, even only just a 1-nanometer step. In Canada, cancer is the leading cause of death and is responsible for 30% of all deaths. With the advanced diagnosis and treatment, deaths from heart disease and other diseases will decrease; unfortunately, deaths from cancer will stay 30% and even increase. Besides conventional surgery and radiotherapy, personalized and targeted chemotherapy would be the future for cancer treatment, where our work lies in.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Funding or money in a general term. Research is itself is costly. The majority of cost is the salary for personnel who carried out the research. In addition, materials used in research are very costly. For example, antibody, averagely an antibody is around 500 dollars for 100 microliter, which is about 2 drops. Usually we need several antibodies and use them frequently in our research; therefore, these kind of consumables are eating our funding quickly.
In this aspect, I appreciate the funding from SHRF to allow us to carry out this exciting work.
How did you first become interested in this area of research? What inspires you to do the work that you do?
My PhD supervisor, Dr. Narendra Tuteja, is working on helicase because his boss, former Dr. Arturo Falaschi was working on helicase. My postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Robert Brosh, is working on helicase because his PhD supervisor, Dr. Steven Matson, and his postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Vilhelm Bohr, both are working on helicase. Growing up in a helicase “family”; naturally, I am working on helicase.
The reason why we focus on DDX41 helicase is mainly because 1) DDX41 is a newly discovered gene. DDX41’s biological function in innate immunity was first discovered in 2011, and DDX41’s connection to MDS/AML disease was first reported in 2012, while I joined at UofS as an independent PI in 2011, so it fits well with my idea of doing something new. 2) Compared with solid tumors, I think liquid tumors might be easier to be treated by targeted chemotherapeutic drugs. Since DDX41 mutations cause leukemia, I thought it is a good starting point. 3) We have an excellent research environment. Co-Principal Applicant Dr. John DeCoteau is a clinician scientist and has more than 20+ years experience in leukemia diagnosis and treatment. Co-applicant Dr. Jim Xiang is expertise in immunology and mouse models. Co-applicant Mark Bosch is the Director of the Hematology Division of the Saskatoon Cancer Centre, Saskatchewan Cancer Agency. Comprised of basic scientists and clinicians, our team is ideally positioned to tackle the issue.
Where is your research headed in the next five years?
On the fundamental science side, we hope we can uncover DDX41’s biological functions. In addition to its known role in innate immunity, our lab is also exploring DDX41’s potential role in DNA repair, stress granules formation, and telomere maintenance. On the translation side, we hope we can identify DDX41 targeted drugs. We have and will establish a pipeline from test tube, cell culture, animal model, to patients. I have to admit it is a long way, but we will move to this direction.
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