Campus News

Researcher awarded four-year grant to identify harmful cancer mutations

Natarajan Kannan
Natarajan Kannan

The American Cancer Society recently awarded a four-year research scholar grant of $720,000 to UGA scientist Natarajan Kannan to distinguish harmful cell mutations that cause cancer from more frequently occurring but harmless mutations. The research could lead to advances in the development of targeted cancer therapies.

An assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Kannan is a member of the UGA Cancer Center and the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics. He was named a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar in 2009. A seed grant from GCC provided data for the project.

His laboratory will analyze the mutations identified in an important class of proteins called tyrosine kinases, which turn “on” and “off” signals responsible for cell growth and survival and have been implicated in human cancers.

“By identifying mutations that show up consistently in hundreds of different tumors of the same type, scientists will be able to pinpoint additional driver mutations of specific cancers,” he said. “These mutations may present new drug targets for cancer therapies.”

Scientists have discovered inhibitors that successfully block mutations caused by tyrosine kinases. One example is the Food and Drug Administration-approved drug Gleevec, which targets the tyrosine kinase protein that can cause a number of cancers, including chronic myelogenous leukemia.

While recent advances in genome sequencing have made finding these driver mutations possible, substantive computing power is required to make sense of the millions of mutations.

With the advent of recent computing techniques, however, scientists are able to keep pace with the flood of data stemming from genomic studies.

In collaboration with Krzysztof J. Kochut, professor of computer science at UGA, Kannan also will develop an automated computational pipeline to rapidly and consistently annotate more than 500 tyrosine kinase mutations identified in cancer genome sequencing studies.

“We believe that an integrative, or systems biology, approach is essential to understand the regulatory complexity of protein kinases,” Kannan said. “Ultimately, we hope this approach will provide new therapeutic strategies for targeting abnormally regulated kinases in human cancers.”