For the second summer in a row, Christine Parsons ’15 is working at Yale University’s Slack Lab, which studies the intricately linked processes of aging, cancer and development in the model organism C. elegans. In particular, the lab’s researchers are trying to better understand microRNAs, which are tiny regulatory molecules that control gene expression and are implicated in many diseases.
Parsons has a summertime grant from Bowdoin’s Career Planning office to fund her internship. Her grant, from the Bowdoin College Alumni Council, is one of several fellowships awarded to students who want to pursue internships or projects around the world.When Parsons worked at the lab last summer, she experienced something new to her — “complete engagement,” she said. “Often when you do a lab in class,” she explained, “the result has already been proven, everybody knows what will happen, it’s like watching reruns. But in a lab, no one knows what will happen. It’s so exciting and so rewarding when it works out.” Parsons, a biochemistry and government and legal studies major, wants to pursue a joint MD-PhD after she graduates from Bowdoin.
These days, microRNAs, which are short non-protein-coding stretches of RNA, are a rich field for scientists seeking to study and develop treatments for a broad range of diseases. MicroRNAs can regulate gene expression by degrading messanger RNA. But not all microRNAs are salubrious — some contribute to cancer and others block it.
Last summer, Parsons helped a graduate student research the influence of microRNAs on aging. Parsons found eight microRNAs that correlated with long life. This summer, Parsons has shifted her focus to look at microRNA’s potential as a cancer treatment. At her lab bench, she’s generating an inducible expression system in breast cancer cells that will let her control whether the cells express a tumor-suppressive microRNA. Using this system, she will investigate which genes provide resistance to the microRNA.
At this research stage, certain microRNAs have been show to successfully suppress tumor growth in mice, and are currently undergoing human trials. The treatment will be tested on human cancer patients to see whether it inhibits tumor growth, Parsons explained. She said the atmosphere at the lab is exciting. “Everyone is very collaborative and really enthusiastic about what they’re doing,” she said. “We’re revealing stuff that is very important, and even though I’m doing a small part, every little bit helps.”