Helen Chun: Researcher Hopes to Find Link to Repairing DNA
Helen Chun, assistant professor of biology, has received an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) grant from the National Institutes of Health, for her research titled, “ATM Regulation via PP2A and Ceramide.” The AREA (R15) grant provides funding for small-scale, health-related research projects, including pilot projects and feasibility studies; development, testing, and refinement of research techniques; and secondary analysis of available data sets. This is the first such award given to a CSU Dominguez Hills faculty member.
Chun’s project explores the reactions of a protein whose deficiency causes ataxia telangiectasia (A-T), a genetic disease that appears in patients in early childhood. ATM (ataxia-telangiectasia mutated) protein facilitates the necessary steps to repair DNA, in the hopes that cells do not become cancerous or degenerative.
“Your DNA is constantly being broken, through normal, everyday function of the cells, and environmental stress,” says Chun. “Everyone has functioning ATM protein, except for A-T patients. Healthy cells with ATM have the ability to know that they’re damaged and go about fixing themselves to help fight diseases like cancer.”
According to Chun, A-T typically appears in patients at the age of three, when young children are usually learning to walk. Their difficulty with balance and developing walking skills will prompt parents to take them to a doctor, who diagnoses them with
“It becomes very obvious by the time the child is in grade school, that something is wrong,” she says. “They cannot walk without holding onto something or someone. They will eventually lose the ability to walk and become wheelchair-bound.”
Chun’s research will examine what controls the ATM protein, and how it is regulated by PP2A and ceramide, two molecular components that are part of cell death.
“When a cell is damaged, or it becomes too aged, often it will commit ‘cell suicide,’” she says,” going through a very precise number of steps called apoptosis. The scientific community believes that there is a connection between ATM and apoptosis, but we’re not exactly sure what the connection is. Basically, I’m saying there is a connection between ATM’s ability to fix cells, and the process of cell death. A cell doesn’t look at itself, say ‘I have so much damage, I can’t fix myself,’ and then die. I’m trying to figure out how the different components send signals to each other before it happens.”
The most prevalent studies of A-T focus on examining the role that ATM plays in DNA repair. Chun decided to center her study on what occurs to make a cell end its efforts to repair damaged DNA. She hopes that her research will ultimately help to fight other neurodegenerative disorders, such as cell death in the brain, a typical A-T symptom, and to provide more varied approaches to cancer treatments for those who are sensitive to radiation.
“A-T was first thought of as a children’s disease, but it’s a genetic disease that starts very early,” Chun says. “Other complications include increased risk for leukemia, lymphoma, neurodegeneration and immune deficiency. Patients usually live until age 40. Typically, they die from infections that they can’t fight, because of their immune deficiency, and cancers, which are hard to treat because of the patients’ sensitivity to radiation.”
Chun earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at Smith College. She went on to achieve her doctorate at UCLA, studying under Richard Gatti, a prominent A-T researcher. Prior to her arrival at CSUDH, she was a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Pathology at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. She has also taught as adjunct faculty at Santa Monica College and CSU Northridge, and serves as the associate editor of the National Science Foundation’s Journal of Student Research Abstracts on that campus. Chun says that the fortuitous timing of a researcher’s position brought her to Dominguez Hills in 2004 but that the students are a big reason for her decision to remain on campus.
“After being here for a year, I realized how great the students were -- they’re very driven,” she recalls. “That is one of the things that actually will keep me here. You can’t help but to want to help them.
“It was very precise what my pathway was going to be, I’d graduate from high school, then go to college. I didn’t have a choice. But a lot of the students are the first ones in their families to graduate from college. Many of them don’t have their families’ support, and have work 30 hours or more to get through school. And many of them have children, which in itself is a full-time job.”
Chun says that the grant enables her to involve Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) undergraduates and a graduate student in gathering data for her project, providing them with skills that will prove useful in their biology careers.
“They’re my research team,” she notes. “I’ll be training them how to interpret data and prepare for their experiments. With my teaching load, I can’t do a lot of this research myself, so they are the ones who will be generating all the data.”
“After being at UCLA, and working at other campuses, I think we have some of the best students anywhere,” she enthuses. “What drives them is hard to describe. The only way that you can appreciate what they want to do is by working with them.”
- Joanie Harmon-Whetmore