Exclusive: Canadian student's discovery could prevent cancer -- and HIV
Caitlin Miron has found something huge: A week ago she was honoured for discovering a chemical compound with the ability to prevent cancer growth, but it could also have significant applications in halting the spread of HIV, too. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Canada News, the Ontario PhD student revealed why her discovery could be more far-reaching — for everything from HIV to Zika — than originally reported.
“There is also a quadruplex forming sequence in an area of HIV that’s responsible for infection of a human host,” Caitlin Miron, the PhD student at Queen’s University, Department of Chemistry who identified the compound said to Yahoo Canada News.
Miron’s research starts with the study of DNA. Most people have likely seen the double helix model of DNA but in our cells, to access the information in that double helix, the DNA has to become temporarily single-stranded.
Miron uses a necklace as an analogy for how single-stranded DNA functions. The strand of DNA is the chain of the necklace and then beads, or cellular machinery that reads and processes DNA to make proteins, are able to move freely along that chain.
“They can keep doing that until they come to a knot,” Miron said. “Usually the cell has a way to unravel that knot but if somebody’s gone there first and used superglue on that knot,…it is basically a permanent object and it’s a barrier so the beads can’t get passed it.”
The knot is an unusual fold of DNA, a guanine quadruplex or G4, and the newly discovered compound is that superglue that stabilizes the unusual architecture and blocks access to specific sections that come after it.
According to Miron, in the last ten years, research and advances in bioinformatics has show that a number of these knots can form directly in front of oncogenes, sections of DNA that if processed make proteins that contribute to cancer development and metastasis, which is the term used to describe cancer that spreads to a different part of the body from where it began.
“If we can block that process from happening, then maybe we’re going to be able to prevent certain aspects of cancer development or metastasis,” Miron said.
Through Miron’s research, it has also been discovered that this compound’s affects could move beyond cancer treatment.
“These knots are also known to form in a lot of different viruses, the Zika virus has one, so there are applications outside of cancer treatment,” Miron said.
In terms of the possible use in cancer treatment in particular, Miron says that there are different knots in different quadruplexes, some of which can be associated with most cancers and some that are more specific.
“At least one of [the knots] that leads to cancer cell immortality, that ability to continue dividing over and over again, is associate with about 85 per cent of cancers,” Miron said. “There is a little bit of potential specificity in there but it may also be something that could be broad spectrum, we don’t know at this point.”