PhD Candidate Profile: Dayna Mason

Dayna Mason Photo Credit: Shane Lo

What is your research about?

Head and Neck cancer is the 6th most common form of cancer worldwide and accounts for around 560,000 cases annually. Recently it has emerged that the Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a major risk factor for oropharyngeal carcinomas (OPC), a subtype of head and neck cancer. HPV is associated with up to 75% of OPC with 90% of these being infected with a high risk variant like HPV16.

The high risk variant HPV16 contains several oncogenes, E6 and E7, which are attributed to causing infected cells to become cancerous. These oncogenes disrupt normal cellular processes and the cells defence mechanisms.

In this project I wish to identify and investigate the interactions between the HPV16 oncogenes and the proteins within a cell.

We also wish to investigate the effects on small non-coding RNAs known as miRNAs which regulate the expression of genes and the production of proteins.

HPV16 virus impacts the expression levels of small and long noncoding RNAs in OPC. The disruption in this regulation process by HPV may cause hundreds of miRNAs and their associated targets to change. 

One of the major challenges in this area of research is to understand how the HPV16 oncogenes interact at a genome wide level. There are hundreds of interactions and pathways which can be the main cause of OPC. Our aim of this project is to develop new method for the analysis and visualisation of large datasets combining our clinical findings and traditional experimental approaches.

We aim to develop an interactome which will allow us to identify the interactions between the HPV16 oncogenes, specific proteins and the miRNAs which regulate these proteins within a cell. These interactions may contribute to the tumorigenic power of HPV16.

With the use of an interactome, we can begin to understand the connections between the virus and various genes. This will allow for the development of a) specific drugs to target specific genes and b) may provide useful guidance on the development of biomarkers.

What is translational application of your research?

In this project, we will be able to identify specific miRNAs that have a dysregulated expression induced by the HPV16 virus in Head and Neck cancer. These specific miRNAs have the potential to be used as molecular biomarkers for the detection of HPV16 positive Head and Neck cancers in patients.

We will also be identifying genes that are regulated by these miRNAs, and the effects the HPV16 virus has on these genes. Those genes that have dysregulated expression induced by HPV16 may be used as gene targets for future novel therapies for the treatment of HPV16 positive Head and Neck cancers.

We wish to combine the use of a biomarker panel for the indirect detection and RT-qPCR for the direct detection of HPV16 viral transcripts to produce a robust method for the identification of HPV16 in patient blood samples.

How would the TCRN PhD top-up Scholarship help you succeed?

The prestige of the TCRN PhD top up scholarship will provide me with new resources and the opportunities to assist me in achieving my research aims. I will be able to communicate my research to a wider audience and have many opportunities to attend professional development courses to help me in my future in science.