UVU researchers using $300k grant to find clues about cancer

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A UVU genetics lab has expanded research on pigeon feathers that may contribute to knowledge about human skin cancer, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The three-year grant of about $300,000 was awarded in August 2019 by the NIH, a government agency that funds biomedical research. The money pays for supplies and tests in a lab run by Eric Domyan, professor of biology and biotechnology.

“[The grant] broadens what we are able to look at in our research a lot more,” said Shannon Baker, a junior studying biotechnology who works in the lab. 

The grant also pays for five student researcher positions. Alanys Benitez, a senior studying biotechnology, said her position on the research team is experience she can take with her after graduation. 

“The fact that I’m able to work on research this early in my career is going to be really beneficial for opening doors later on,” Benitez said.

Details of the study

Domyan and his students study feather color, which comes from two pigments — red and black. Different amounts of each pigment lead to different colors.

The two pigments are also present in human skin. Everyone has both pigments, but the amounts vary from person to person. The pigments protect from sun damage, but black pigment does a better job. People who have more black pigment are less likely to get skin cancer after exposure to the sun.

Pigeons and humans have the same pigment-making genes, although they have different versions of them. Research on a pigeon gene could lead to a better understanding of the same gene in humans, including how it might increase susceptibility to cancer.

About fifteen students work on the project, which is one of two NIH-funded activities at UVU. Students in research labs, unlike lab classes, have no answer key or instruction manual.

“It’s helpful for me to figure out how experimental processes work more, because you need to come up with what you’re doing,” Baker said. “It’s not always just handed to you.”

Benitez said, “There’s a lot of disappointment sometimes. But when you get something right, you get the right answer for your question, it’s just the most amazing part of the job.”

Most pigeons have black feathers, but some birds have difficulty making black pigment because they have a gene mutation. Those pigeons have red feathers instead. But feather color isn’t determined by only one gene — coloration is more complicated. Other genes must be involved, and Domyan’s team is trying to find those genes.

Looking ahead

One year into the grant, the team has found genes that are more active in one color of feather than the other. But just because a gene is more active in a black feather than a red feather doesn’t mean it contributes to color. The difference could be a coincidence. The next step is to sort out the coincidences from the genes that actually control pigment.

“If you want to know what a gene does, you look at what goes wrong when you interfere with the function of that gene,” Domyan said. 

The researchers will use genetic engineering to mutate each gene in cells in petri dishes. The mutation will break the gene, so it can’t do its job. If that job affects colors, the pigments in the cells will change.

At the end of the three years, Domyan hopes to use the team’s findings to develop further questions about pigmentation and apply for another grant.

Scientific research on campus is especially important for international students like Benitez, who find it more difficult to get research internships outside of school because companies need to do extra paperwork. She appreciates “all of these opportunities that UVU gives, not only to international students but also to students that come to UVU of different ages,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter your background, I feel like all the scientific field is open to us.”