PhD Scholarship Top-up student profile: Pamela Ajuyah

TCRN PhD Scholarship Top-up Recipient: Pamela Ajuyah TCRN PhD Scholarship Top-up Recipient: Pamela Ajuyah

The Role of non-coding RNAs in Head and Neck Cancer

Award: Pamela is the recipient of a Final year PhD Scholarship Top-up

Supervisors:  Dr. Nham Tran; Faculty of Science, UTS, Australia. Centre for Health Technologies; Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, UTS, Australia;  The Sydney Head and Neck Cancer Institute, Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Australia.

Dr. Gyorgy Hutvagner; Faculty of Science,UTS, Australia; Centre for Health Technologies, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, UTS, Australia.

Head and Neck cancer ("HNSCC") is a heterogeneous disease due to the various sub-sites of head and neck cancer, which makes prognosis, diagnosis and classification challenging. A further complication is the lack of molecular markers for this disease which is due to the poor understanding of the molecular biology of head and neck cancer. Thus, my project aims to unravel the complexity of this disease. The two central aims for my project are to discover novel biomarkers such as long non coding RNAs ("lncRNAs") for the early diagnosis of HNSCC and to further elucidate the molecular pathways of this disease. 

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What is the translational application of your research?

We envisage three main translational outcomes. First, lncRNAs may act as potential biomarkers for HNSCC. Currently, there are NO clinical biomarkers for this disease. The discovery of long non coding RNAs in HNSCC and their application as robust biomarkers would change our fundamental understanding of lncRNAs and their application to cancer diagnosis.

Second, we can target these novel lncRNAs as a possible future therapy for cancer treatment. lncRNAs that silence oncogenic genes have the potential to be developed into RNA based therapeutics using the principle of RNA interference ("RNAi"). This would be even more effective with lncRNAs that act as ‘sponges’ for oncogenic micro RNAs ("miRNAs"). These therapeutics can then be given to patients via intravenous injections to slow down tumor growth or prevent metastasis.

The third translational outcome would be to develop antisense inhibitors (antagomirs) to the miRNAs involved in tumor cell metastasis. In particular the application of my chosen miRNA as antagomirs in the treatment of aggressive head and neck cancers. Many studies have now shown the successful delivery of modified antisense miRNAs into mice, which has resulted in control of tumor mass. 

In summary we hope to deliver robust lncRNA biomarkers for head and neck diagnosis. Currently nothing is known about the role of HNSCC development. By gaining an insight, a future potential may be the development of novel therapies to regulate ncRNAs in cancer patients.

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"As a researcher working on a non coding RNA project with a potential therapeutics outcome, the pipe dream is to generate a miRNA based drug that can be used in the clinic. I hope that TCRN will provide the information I need to understand how scientists make the leap from working on the bench to clinical applications." 

This PhD research has been presented at the following conferences:

  • 2014: Poster presentation at the RNAUK conference at Lake Windermere, England.
  • 2014: Presented at the RNA Silencing, Keystone Symposia at Seattle, USA and Lorne Genome conference at Mantra Lorne, Australia.
  • 2013: Oral presentation at the New Horizons conference at the Kolling Institute, Australia.
  • 2012: Poster presentation at the EMBL PhD Symposia, Heidelberg Germany and at the SRM conference at the Kolling Institute, Australia.

Pamela Ajuyah commenced her third year of PhD studies at the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Centre of Health Technologies, UTS in 2014.