Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

UH College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics Breakthrough (College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics)

Biology/Biochemistry PhD Students Explore Cancer Causes and Treatments

Funded by Robert Hazelwood Graduate Fellowships for Cancer Research

Ashfia Khan and Tianyi Zhou are focused on finding answers for cancer and how it affects the body. Now, they’re getting extra help to enhance their research.

Khan and Zhou, Ph.D. students at the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, have earned Robert Hazelwood Graduate Fellowships for cancer research. Khan is pursuing her Ph.D. in biochemistry, and Zhou is pursuing his Ph.D. in biology with a focus on cell and molecular biology.

The fellowship, $5,000 for each student, is awarded annually to exemplary Ph.D. students in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry who are engaged in cancer research.

Research on Prevalent Breast Cancer Subtype

Khan’s research focuses on drug-resistant luminal A breast cancer, the most prevalent breast cancer subtype, according to the National Institutes of Health. About 30%-40% of patients with this subtype show resistance to conventional anti-cancer therapy.

Ashfia Khan
Ashfia Khan

“I’m interested in learning more about the role the androgen receptor (AR) plays, in particular with the nonconventional modified AR in breast cancer,” said Khan.

Khan is designing molecules to target the modified AR and, consequently, deliver targeted therapy for patients with luminal A breast cancer.

“Cancer cells can evade therapy and evolve into a more aggressive form to survive and metastasize,” she said. “There is a clinical need to target drug-resistant metastatic breast cancer.”

Khan, whose aunt recently passed away from breast cancer, knows the challenges of the disease and wants to help others who are affected.

“It’s difficult to see people in this state of health,” she said. “I want to find a way to give cancer patients hope that this disease is not a death sentence.”

Khan’s advisor, associate professor Tasneem Bawa-Khalfe, describes Khan as a highly productive, hard-working independent thinker. She is thrilled with the progress Khan has made since joining UH four years ago.

“Ashfia is a co-author on three published manuscripts on cancer biology and anti-cancer therapy,” said Bawa-Khalfe. “Her recent findings define how and why the modified form of the AR accumulates in luminal A breast cancer patients.”

Examining Molecular Mechanisms of Prostate Cancer

Zhou’s research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that drive advanced prostate cancer. The ultimate goal of his work is to identify novel target molecules for potential therapeutic interventions.

Tianyi Zhou
Tianyi Zhou

“Prostate cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths among men in the United States,” said Zhou. “Our research aims to elucidate the mechanisms responsible for the progression of primary prostate cancer to advanced metastatic prostate cancer.”

Zhou explained that the current gold standard for treating prostate cancer is hormone therapy, also known as androgen deprivation therapy. This treatment targets the AR found in prostate cells. The primary purpose of hormone therapy is to reduce the activity of the receptor, limiting its ability to fuel growth of prostate cancer cells.

“Many who undergo androgen deprivation treatment mistakenly think they’re cured as the tumor size shrank, along with the shutdown of androgen receptor signaling,” said Zhou. “However, after an average of two to three years, the cancer can come back in a more aggressive form.”

Finding out why it comes back is where Zhou’s work comes into play.

His advisor, associate professor Qin Feng, said Zhou exceeded expectations since joining her lab.

“Zhou has an outstanding self-learning ability and strong critical thinking skills,” said Feng. “I found he had immense research potential.”

As a result of his proactive and quick learning abilities, Feng said Zhou has already published two papers and is preparing two, first-authored manuscripts.

Common Goal – A Better Way of Life for Cancer Patients

Both Khan and Zhou share a similar goal. They want to use their research to help create a better way of life for those affected by cancer.

“I believe that a comprehensive understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying prostate cancer will enable people to develop more effective treatments and save thousands of lives,” said Zhou.

Through her work, Khan also hopes to find novel approaches to target metastatic cancer.

“If we are able to detect cancer early, we have a much greater chance of curing it,” said Khan. “Educating the population and having access to affordable healthcare for everyone are keys to achieving this.”

Chris Guillory, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics