The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $1.08 million grant to The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) to support research on the combination of computational modeling with biological information and increase knowledge of the factors that provoke breast cells to transform into cancerous ones. The institutes have decided to support the project as a way of improving treatment of breast cancer, the most common type of cancer for American women, with the exception of skin cancers.
The research is being conducted by a UTSA team of electrical and computer engineering professors that include Yufei Huang and Jianqiu (Michelle) Zhang, as well as RNA biologist Manjeet K. Rao and bioinformatics expert Yidong Chen, from the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. The three-year grant will be used by the team to investigate the correlation between cancer and mRNA methylation, a recently found epigenetic process able to command the orderly functions of human cells.
In order to understand this link, the researchers will use deep genome sequencing as well as computer modeling strategies. Their main purpose is to discover abnormalities in the methylation process, which may explain the development of diseases such as cancer, since breast cancer affects one in eight women in the country, according to the American Cancer Society.
“By bringing together computer engineers who are experts in computational modeling with experts in biology and genome sequencing, we have added a new dimension to the emerging study of mRNA methylation,” said Huang, who is also working with scientists from the UTSA Open Cloud Laboratory in order to address the need for the high computing power needed to run the study’s simulations. “We are going to conduct some truly groundbreaking research over the next few years.”
In addition, Huang explained that the study is expected to increase researchers’ understanding of the importance of mRNA methylation in the regulation of the dynamics between normal and diseased states in breast cancer, and to offer new clues for the development of more effective therapeutic intervention strategies. “The research to be performed at UTSA through this prestigious NIH grant has the potential to fundamentally change how we see human diseases,” added the chair of the UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Daniel Pack.
Yufei Huang has also recently been part of a series of studies funded by the U.S. Department of Defense that allowed UTSA to acquire two high-performance electroencephalogram (EEG) systems in aid of advancing research and education in the area of brain-machine interaction (BMI). The technology enabled several highly interdisciplinary research and educational projects in BMI and brain research led by six professors from five departments across UTSA.