Biologist Peter Cheung awarded $200K grant from Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute

Peter Cheung
Peter Cheung

Peter Cheung, associate professor in the Department of Biology, has been awarded an Innovation Grant from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.

The goal of the Innovation Grant program is to support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies to address problems in cancer research. Valued at $200,000, Cheung’s grant will allow him to test an innovative technology he created to further explore the role of histones – proteins that keep DNA neatly packaged and regulate gene expression − in cancer biology.

“We’re delighted to see this work being supported by the Canadian Cancer Society,” said Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science. “Peter has developed an innovative tool that could potentially advance cancer research, drug discovery and treatment. Congratulations to him on his success.”

Cheung’s research program focuses on understanding how histones and histone-modifying enzymes control the expression of human genes. He is particularly interested in the histone variant H2A.Z, which is found at gene regions that control when and if a gene is expressed. One of the ways in which H2A.Z’s function is regulated is by a small protein called ubiquitin. Recent research from Cheung’s lab has found that when H2A.Z is bound to ubiquitin, it suppresses the expression of some cancer-causing genes. On the flip side, abnormal levels of H2A.Z alone (i.e., not linked with ubiquitin) can cause cancer.

“We have reason to believe that this H2A.Z ubiquitination pathway could be targeted for future cancer drug discovery,” said Cheung. “However, we still need to understand more about how H2A.Z and its ubiquitin-modified form work in normal and cancer cells.”

Part of the challenge of doing this research is that it is difficult to detect and discriminate H2A.Z from its modified form. To address this hurdle, Cheung recently created a uniquely engineered version of H2A.Z that adds a chemical tag to itself when it is modified by ubiquitin. This tag allows Cheung to capture the modified H2A.Z from cells in the lab and study how it works.

Cheung’s new grant from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute will allow him to further develop and optimize this method. His group will also combine it with other cutting-edge technologies to ask where the ubiquitinated form of H2A.Z is found within the human genome, and how the H2A.Z-ubiquitination pathway can potentially be targeted for cancer therapies.

“Our new method might unlock a bottleneck in my area of research and accelerate progress,” says Cheung. “It could also potentially be used to study additional pathways that involve ubiquitin and other histones. Thank you to the Canadian Cancer Society for supporting this project.”

Learn more about Cheung’s research by visiting his lab webpage.