London Community News: From thousands of miles to a fraction of an inch

Ana Pinson has travelled 2,000 miles looking for answers a fraction of a centimetre wide.

Stretched out, the DNA from a human cell is about three metres long, but only about two nanometers (0.0000002 centimetres) wide.

Pinson is between her third and fourth years of study on genomic sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (NAUM). Situated in Mexico City, the largest metropolitan centre in the Western hemisphere, NAUM is the country’s largest post-secondary school.

Its enrolment is comparable to the population of London.

Pinson is at Western University for the summer studying the genetics of breast cancer as part of an exchange through Mitacs Globalink, a program funded by the federal government designed to promote Canada’s academic sector around the world.

She said she likes the relatively calm campus at Western, and the relatively cool summer in London.

“I like the people a lot because they are very kind, and I like the campus,” she said. “I like the buildings. I think it’s very quiet and very pleasant to be here in London.”

Pinson plans to earn a doctorate in biomedical sciences and work as a researcher. She said Western is on her list of places to earn her master’s degree.

She is doing pretty much the same work on breast cancer as she was in Mexico, but the difference at Western is that she gets to work with human data from breast cancer samples, not just bacteria.

“The field I’m most interested in now is human research, so this is my opportunity to get involved in that,” she said. “I’m interested generally in genomic medicine because I feel it’s a very exciting field. It focuses more on prevention of disease (rather than) treating diseases.”

Under the supervision of graduate student John Mucaki, Pinson is working with data generated by a DNA sequencer, a “very expensive” machine takes a week at a time to take tiny pictures of a DNA strand, generating images of millions of genes during each session.

When the machine has finished processing the images (which takes another two days), Mucaki and Pinson fully extrapolate the data, looking at different parts of the DNA’s sequencing than most researchers tend to focus on.

They’re trying to find something others have missed. This week for example, the sequencer is processing samples from women with a family history of breast cancer and who contracted it themselves, but the lab couldn’t figure out what caused it.

 “We’re looking for interesting differences in their DNA from a healthy person to find what could be causing the cancer.”

Pinson’s project for the summer is to develop software that will make the process quicker, easier and more flexible.

“With advancements in sequencing, when we sequence we generate so much information that it takes longer to analyze it than it does to prepare and get the machine running,” Mucaki said. “It’s something that will be very helpful for years.”

Biochemistry and computer science professor Dr. Peter Rogan, who holds a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Genome Bioinformatics, is overseeing Pinson’s work.

Mitacs contacted Rogan for this year’s exchange because he hosted a student last year as well. When he saw Pinson’s qualifications he thought she would be a good fit for the work going on in his lab.

Since there are only two full-fledged departments of genomics in Canada (in Toronto and Vancouver), finding students with that specific focus can be a challenge.

“There are a handful of labs oriented toward genomics in Western’s department of biochemistry, so most of the students trained there don’t necessarily have the skills I need to grow my lab,” he said. “The department of biochemistry has been around since the turn of the 20th century. It’s unlikely we’re going to change the system. So the exchange is an opportunity to bring together students who have the appropriate training for labs that need that training.”

Rogan said undergrads who train on Mitacs exchanges learn more, are more valuable and more productive by the time they reach the graduate level.

Rogan is currently on an exchange of his own, working on a breast cancer research project at the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori in Milan.

Reached while sitting 100 yards from the Coliseum in Rome, he said international collaboration is the future of science.

“Breast cancer doesn’t know any national boundaries.”

By Craig Gilbert