Providence College Theologian and Biologist Receives Prestigious NIH Grant for Cancer Research
Providence, R.I. – Reverend Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., associate professor of biology at Providence College, has been awarded a $257,049 grant from the National Institute of Health/National Institute for General Medical Sciences to support a project titled Genetic Dissection of Yeast Bax Inhibitor Function in UPR and Calcium Signaling. The grant, which is an Academic Research Enhancement Award (NIH AREA R15), is for the period May 2014 through April 2017.
This is the second AREA R15 grant for Fr. Austriaco in four years. The first award was in 2010, for Genetic Identification of Sulforaphane's Mechanism of Action in Yeast Cell Death.
The AREA program supports small-scale research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by faculty and students at educational institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds.
Funding will support joint faculty-student research and offer tremendous opportunities for PC students to research a gene linked to several human cancers.
Fr. Austriaco has been teaching at PC since 2005. His areas of expertise include Biology of Programmed Cell Death, Biology and Ethics of Stem Cell Research, and Health Care Ethics and Bioethics in the Catholic Tradition. He received a bachelor’s degree from University of Pennsylvania in 1989, a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996, and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. in 2005.
Public Health Relevance of Project
Bax inhibitor-1 (BI-1) is a gene that has been linked to several human cancers including lymphoma, leukemia, prostate, and breast cancer. It is gene that is also found in a diversity of animals, plants, and single celled organisms like yeast and bacteria.
It is not clear how the malfunctioning of Bax inhibitor leads to tumor formation. However, there is some experimental data which suggests that this gene is involved in a cell’s response to stresses that disrupt protein structure and to changes in calcium levels in its environment. It may also be involved in programmed cell death.
Fr. Austriaco’s laboratory will investigate how BAX inhibitor works by making yeast mutants lacking Bax inhibitor and combinations of key protein stress and calcium regulatory genes. Studying these mutants with the powerful techniques available with yeast genetics should allow the team to pinpoint Bax inhibitor’s functions normally during programmed cell suicide, and abnormally during cancer, which could in turn lead to better treatment for patients fighting Bax inhibitor related cancers.