Queen’s PhD student receives award for cancer research

Caitlin Miron one of seven to receive annual Mitacs PhD Award for Outstanding Innovation

Mitacs PhD award winner Caitlin Miron.

When Caitlin Miron arrived in France for an internship in 2015 with a collection of biochemical compounds in hand, she wasn’t sure where her work would lead. Two years later, she’s one of seven PhD students to be recognized by Mitacs for her outstanding cancer research. 

On Nov. 21, Miron was granted the Mitacs PhD Award for Outstanding Innovation at a ceremony in Ottawa. Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that works with 60 universities, thousands of companies as well as both provincial and federal government to support industrial and social innovation in Canada. The organization administers seven research and leadership awards annually.

Over the past four years, Miron has investigated aspects of DNA with the Department of Chemistry at Queen’s for her PhD work. Her research interests led her to a Mitacs Globalink Research Internship at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology (IECB) in Bordeaux, France.

The Mitacs Globalink internship partners Canadian and international institutions with researchers to facilitate a 12-week research program for students. The internship allowed Miron to research potential ways to combat the spread of cancer cells in collaboration with Jean-Louis Mergny, a research director at IECB.

Miron explained her research in an interview with The Journal on Tuesday.

“Normally DNA is in that double helix we see a lot in the media, but it can become temporarily single-stranded,” Miron said. “When it does, we can think of it like a necklace. The chain is the single strand of DNA and then you have beads that move freely down that chain — and they can [move freely] until they come to a knot.” 

“Now normally the cell has ways to unravel that knot, but in this case somebody else has gotten there first, and they’ve used superglue to make [the knot] a permanent structure,” she continued. “In that analogy, the beads that are moving along the chain are the cell machinery that reads and processes pieces of your DNA to make proteins [and] the knot is an unusual fold of DNA.”

Through Miron’s research, she and her colleagues discovered what she calls “a metaphorical superglue.” This “superglue” often presents itself right in front of sections of DNA called oncogenes — genes that have the potential to cause cancer.

“The hope is that we could use [the superglue] to stabilize that folded structure, and if the structure’s there, [the superglue] blocks the axis of cell machinery to that section, so you wouldn’t get a production of that protein. And then that protein wouldn’t be able to help with metastasis or different aspects of cancer,” Miron said.

According to Miron, her internship at IECB was invaluable. She said it allowed her to consult with a team of experts to learn different research techniques. 

Before her award ceremony in Ottawa on Nov. 21, Miron had the chance to speak to MPs on Parliament Hill about her work. 

As for next steps, Miron’s anticipating the publication of her research in January 2018.

“I’ve got a bunch of publications that will be rolling out at some point next year,” Miron said. “[The research] looks fairly promising, and it would be nice to see something going into clinical trials, but we’re really not there yet — that’s far away.”

When Miron began her PhD at Queen’s, cancer research wasn’t her main project — but she’s glad she became involved in this work.

“It’s really exciting [… ] to make a discovery and then be like, ‘I am in charge of this project, and this is what I’m going to do next,’” she said.

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