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Doctoral student examines role of protein TTK in breast cancer

By Melissa Gilstrap | Emory Report | May 8, 2018

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Jamie King’s PhD research for Laney Graduate School’s Cancer Biology Program has uncovered potential research avenues for new therapeutic interventions, including for triple-negative breast cancer, which disproportionately affects African American women. Emory Photo/Video

The decision to pursue a PhD is not for the faint of heart. Students who choose the doctoral pathway possess a consuming desire to discover the unexpected and create new knowledge. It is a journey that requires years of dedication, perseverance and intense intellectual rigor. For 2018 graduate Jamie King, the spark was lit during her time as an undergraduate at North Carolina A&T State University.

“My undergraduate research interests were centered around studying genes related to different breast cancer subtypes, particularly those subtypes such as triple-negative breast cancer that disproportionately affect African American women, and that was something I wanted to ensure carried over into my graduate studies,” says King.

As she considered prospective graduate schools and programs, the Laney Graduate School’s Cancer Biology program rose to the top. With research opportunities at the Emory Winship Cancer Institute and a faculty of clinicians, researchers and practicing physicians from across Emory, the program was well-situated to meet King’s expectations.

“I desired the opportunity to interact with cancer patients, advocates and clinicians while pursuing my PhD. At the time, the Cancer Biology program was recruiting their second cohort of students, and it was evident early on that the program was poised to facilitate all of these goals for me,” she says. “I was also very impressed with Laney’s commitment to offering diverse opportunities for mentoring and community outreach to their students.”

Breast cancer research

Under the advisement and mentorship of professors Jin-Tang Dong and Harold Saavedra, King embarked on a research project that led her to less explored areas of cancer research, culminating in her dissertation, “Roles of TTK Kinase in Breast Cancer Tumorigenesis.”

While the protein TTK had been well characterized for its function in cell mitosis, it had not extensively been studied in cancer models. King’s project set out to change that, and in the process, she uncovered potential research avenues for new therapeutic interventions.

“Over the course of my research studies, I made some interesting discoveries about how high TTK expression promotes invasive cell behavior and signaling pathways in subtypes of breast cancer where there are currently no targeted therapies available,” she explains.

While researchers like King enjoy the rigor of the lab and scientific processes, the pay-off is always in the impact of the research.

“My research will add to the understanding and development of new therapeutic targets related to cell mitosis in cancer cells,” she says. “Although several new therapeutics associated with mitotic proteins have reached preclinical stages, there is still a gap in knowledge in knowing exactly how they function at the cellular level in fundamental tumorigenic processes, such as cell invasion.

“And since part of my research was conducted in models of triple-negative breast cancer, my research could also provide more insight into potential markers of disease progression or behavior in women with this subtype of breast cancer,” she continues.

As King’s graduate journey comes to an end, she has also come full circle, having pursued and accomplished the goals she set for herself as an undergraduate that inspired her pathway to graduate school.

The next challenge

For the next leg of her professional journey, King is going from the bench to the podium, so to speak, and plans to pursue a career in science communication. This decision, too, brings her full circle to those early desires to interact with patients, clinicians and advocates.

“During my time in the Cancer Biology program, my interactions with a broader community beyond the lab have shown me the value of effective communication of scientific ideas. For example, after explaining my research to a patient advocate, her interest in how she could more actively support basic research efforts was piqued, since I was able to frame it in a relatable manner.

“To me, these types of interactions help ensure the general public is invested in research endeavors from the start at the bench all the way to the clinic – it is imperative for the future of health care and support of biomedical research in generations to come,” she says.

King joins more than 275 students receiving the PhD in the 2017-18 academic year at Emory. For Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco, King’s professional pathway demonstrates the versatility of the doctorate and the broader need for PhDs in a range of professions.

“The skill sets developed in graduate school prepare our students for opportunities in a wide range of professional sectors, from classrooms to boardrooms, from laboratories to think tanks,” says Tedesco. “I am immensely proud of Jamie and all of our graduates for choosing to pursue their graduate studies at Emory. We are proud to be the graduate school of first choice for today’s brightest minds and tomorrow’s intellectual leaders.”