Rice recruits cancer researcher from Harvard with CPRIT grant

A cancer researcher from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital will join the Rice University faculty in August as the result of a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The CPRIT grant was awarded to Rice to recruit Natasha Kirienko to Texas. She is currently a research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School and an assistant in molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“Natasha Kirienko will be an outstanding addition to the faculty in the Department of BioSciences at Rice,” said Mary C. Farach-Carson, vice provost for translational bioscience and scientific director of the BioScience Research Collaborative. “Her work bridges two disciplines, resistance to infection and cancer, which we increasingly understand to be highly interrelated. She uses the worm as a model system and has proposed a novel way to use this creature to help us identify new means to find targets for treatment-resistant cancers.”

photo of Natasha Kirienko

Natasha Kirienko

Originally from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Kirienko received her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Russia’s Southern Federal University and performed her master’s research at the Institute of Protein Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences. She received a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Wyoming. Kirienko has been doing research at Harvard since 2010.

As a graduate student, Kirienko investigated the retinoblastoma protein, which functions to suppress tumors by regulating cell division. When this protein is dysfunctional, it can cause numerous types of cancer. “Retinoblastoma pathway members are misregulated in over 90 percent of tumors,” Kirienko said. Part of her work focused on identifying new potential cell cycle genes in a nematode, or roundworm, that are regulated by the retinoblastoma protein.

During her postdoctoral training, Kirienko studied Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a drug-resistant pathogen that is a leading cause of death in patients with cystic fibrosis and that frequently infects patients with cancer. She found that this infection can cause mitochondrial dysfunction, which relates to the work she will be doing in Houston.

At Rice, Kirienko will focus on learning more about the role of mitochondria, structures often called the “powerhouse of the cell” because they generate chemical energy. Excessive damage to mitochondria can lead to programmed cell suicide, or apoptosis.

A better understanding of mitochondria may enable researchers to develop new medicines to turn on recently discovered cellular pathways that can cause cancer cells to kill themselves. These pathways may be easier to activate in tumor cells. Kirienko hopes to identify the conditions that trigger cancer cell death while minimizing toxicity to normal cells and also look for new drugs and treatments that may be better at activating these pathways in cancer cells.

“We want to find a drug that could cause excessive mitochondrially triggered cell death in cancer cells but not damage normal cells,” Kirienko said. “Lots of tumors are resistant to conventional therapies. Inducing apoptosis due to mitochondrial damage could be a way to make tumor cells die.”

Kirienko also said she hopes to take advantage of some of the “excellent facilities” available at the Texas Medical Center.

“We are delighted that CPRIT has chosen to assist with Natasha’s recruitment as a first-time, tenure-track faculty member,” Farach-Carson said. “Without CPRIT support, we would not have been able to recruit this highly talented scientist to Rice.”

About 40,000 Texans die of cancer per year. CPRIT was approved by state taxpayers in a 2007 ballot initiative to provide $3 billion to support cancer research in Texas, where cancer is the leading cause of death for people under the age of 85. Beginning operations in 2009, CPRIT has awarded $1.33 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations through its academic research, prevention and product development research programs.

Tags:

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.