From blindness to cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, gene splicing is important for human health.

Erin Vanzyl, a PhD student in the Department of Biology is researching how cells can survive fundamental errors in gene regulation. Vanzyl’s research provides insight into how cells deal with errors in splicing or the inhibition of splicing.

“Errors in splicing change the sequence proteins produce so they represent a form of mutation. We hypothesize that there are ways for cells to detect these errors and minimize the damage they produce. I use small drugs that interfere with normal splicing to induce errors in splicing, to figure out how cells protect themselves. My results and ongoing work provide important insight into how human cells respond to splicing dysfunction,” explained Vanzyl.

Vanzyl became involved in this research when she was in her third year of her undergraduate degree while helping a graduate student who was working on a similar project.

“Her primary results gave many answers, and even more questions, such as what pathway(s) are causing the cell cycle changes observed? I have now spent three years working towards answering this question.”

Vanzyl is conducting this research by using immortalized cell lines that are grown in a lab. From there, Vanzyl uses two compounds that cause errors in the splicing process and adds them to cells. Using various biology techniques and genomics approaches, Vanzyl is able to decipher the responses cells have to splicing inhibitions.

“My work has applications for a variety of disease states. A related process, alternative splicing has been linked to cancer progression and other diseases, and the use of splicing inhibitor compounds, such as the ones I use, have been shown to stop progression of neurodegenerative diseases. Although I do not look directly at the health applications of splicing therapies, my work provides insight into how cells deal with errors in splicing, or the inhibition of splicing,” said Vanzyl.

Dr. Bruce McKay, the Director of the Institute of Biochemistry has supervised Vanzyl’s research for the past six years. Vanzyl describes Dr. McKay as a supportive and enthusiastic supervisor who is always willing to come to the lab to see her results right away whether good or bad.

“He is the reason I have continued so far in research,” emphasized Vanzyl. “I am thankful to Dr. McKay for helping throughout my research career and also supporting my commitments outside of campus, always giving me the time off I needed to balance research with my other interests allowing me to continue loving research.

Vanzyl is a recipient of the prestigious Vanier scholarship, allowing her to commit her time to her research and volunteer without the financial burden of being a graduate student.

“Receiving a Vanier award was a huge honour, and I was very proud to have my work both inside and outside of research recognized. It has allowed me to commit my time to my research and volunteer work for the next few years without the financial burden of being a graduate student. Being awarded a Vanier has also opened doors for a variety of opportunities and support throughout my research career,” expressed Vanzyl.

Vanzyl plans on continuing her research on gene splicing throughout her PhD. After her PhD, she plans on continuing this research as a Postdoctoral Fellow or entering the workforce.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 in , ,
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