Jessica Blackburn ’01 receives prestigious $1.5 million grant award

Posted by Centre News in Alumni, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, News, Research 08 Nov 2017

Jessica Blackburn ’01, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, has earned a prestigious National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) New Innovator Award. The $1.5 million grant will be spent over five years to fund pediatric cancer research.

Blackburn explained that the purpose of the NIH grant is to support risky, innovative projects, that, if successful, could have a major impact on human health.

After graduating from Centre with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Blackburn was hired as a lab tech at the University of Virginia, where she stayed for three years and discovered her love of research. After receiving her Ph.D. from Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, she became interested in the zebrafish cancer models and completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University.

In her position at the University of Kentucky, Blackburn’s primary focus is running a research program to find new therapeutic targets for the treatment of pediatric cancers.

“We do basic research, meaning that we are interested in what certain genes and proteins are doing in cells to help cancer cells grow and survive chemotherapy treatment,” Blackburn said. “My lab is unique, because we use zebrafish cancer models. Approximately 70 percent of the proteins in human cells have a direct match in zebrafish, so what we find in our fish model has a good chance to translate to human disease.

“Detailed imaging studies of zebrafish help us to visualize in living animals how tumors progress and respond to therapy, for transgenic studies to determine how certain genes promote cancer growth and for drug screens to find new drugs that kill cancer cells,” she continued.

With this grant, Blackburn said her lab will be able to define the biology of an important cell type in cancer known as cancer stem cell.

“These cells can self-renew, so they are immortal and can remake a cancer from a single cell,” she explained. “Researchers have proven that these cells drive relapse growth, but we don’t know much else about them. In patients, they are very rare—one in every 100,000 cancer cells, so they are very difficult to isolate and study.

“Like human cancer, zebrafish cancer models also have cancer stem cells, and during my post-doctoral fellowship, I screened more than 10,000 animals to identify tumors with a high cancer stem cell frequency of one in every 10 cancer cells,” she continued.

In her lab, Blackburn will use these tumors in single cell ribonucleic (RNA) sequencing, which she hopes will allow them to identify the unique gene expression profile of cancer stem cells in order to find out what gives them the self-renewal ability.

During the research process, Blackburn said they will also use zebrafish to screen drug libraries to find compounds that can kill cancer stem cells or block their ability to self-renew and form relapse.

“We are going to start with a 770 compound FDA-approved library,” she said. “These drugs are already used in patients for treatments other than cancer, so anything we find could be rapidly translated to clinical trial in cancer.”

by Kerry Steinhofer
November 8, 2017