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College of Engineering at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Stopping Cancer in its Tracks

UTSA College of Engineering receives $1.08 million NIH grant to study cancer cells

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded a $1.08 million grant to Yufei Huang, professor in the UTSA College of Engineering Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Jianqiu (Michelle) Zhang, associate professor in the UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to develop new bioinformatics tools to study mRNA methylation and breast cancer.

“Basically, we are looking at the inner workings of mRNA and methylation and by using deep genome sequencing technology and computer models, we are trying to uncover a new mechanism of cancer,” said Huang. “Such mechanisms can help us predict which cells in a human’s body may become cancerous and stop cancer in its tracks before it even forms.”

“We are so excited to be working on such an exciting project that could possibly change the way we look at cancer.”
- Yufei Huang, professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

The research team also includes Manjeet K. Rao, an RNA biologist, and Yidong Chen, an expert in deep sequencing and bioinformatics, from the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

“By bringing together computer engineers who are experts in computational modeling with experts in biology and RNA sequencing, we have added a new dimension to the emerging study of mRNA methylation,” said Huang.

MRNA methylation refers to the chemical modifications to the mRNA molecules that code genetic information. Abnormal modification could alter the genetic codes that command the orderly functions of human cells and thus lead to diseases such as cancer.

Huang says that the result of this research hopefully will cast new light on the role of mRNA methylation in regulating the dynamics between normal and disease states and thus may provide leads to more effective strategies for future therapeutic intervention.

“The research planned to be performed by doctors Huang and Zhang with the team at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio through this NIH grant has potential to fundamentally change how we see human diseases,” said Daniel Pack, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “By bringing experts from both medical and engineering fields together to study cancer using powerful computational engineering tools, the team has a great chance to contribute in finding solutions to one of the society’s most difficult problems. Doctors Huang and Zhang are the right individuals with the right knowledge and skills to be on this team.”

To address the need for high computational power need to run the study’s simulations, the team also will work with UTSA Cloud and BigData Laboratory researchers to seek computing solutions for these bioinformatics tools. The UTSA Cloud uses a multiple- cell concept where a cell consists of compute, storage and network nodes that are built using the Open Compute hardware, and allow for flexibility in adapting the systems to changing engineering and scientific application requirements.

“We are so excited to be working on such an exciting project that could possibly change the way we look at cancer,” said Huang. “I am honored that we were awarded this prestigious NIH grant, and know that we are going to be doing some groundbreaking research in the course of the next few years.”

—Deborah Silliman Wolfe/College of Engineering

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