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Massey Postdoctoral researcher receives prestigious research fellowship

Catherine Vaughan AACR Award Group Photo
Catherine Vaughan, Ph.D., (middle, blue dress) with other AACR research fellows. Photo by © AACR/Todd Buchanan 2019.

Catherine Vaughan, Ph.D., was recently awarded an American Association of Cancer Research (AACR)-AstraZeneca Fellowship in Lung Cancer Research at this year’s AACR annual meeting. Vaughan was just one of three postdoctoral scientists to receive this distinguished award.

The highly competitive fellowship provides a two-year grant of $120,000 to support the salary and benefits of a postdoctoral scientist working on mentored lung cancer research. The research must be basic, translational, clinical or epidemiological in nature, and must have direct applicability and relevance to the impact of driver mutations on lung cancer development and progression.

Vaughan received her undergraduate degree in Forensic Science from VCU in 2008 and her doctorate in Integrative Life Sciences in 2015. She has since worked as a postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Sumitra Deb, Ph.D., a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center and a Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the VCU School of Medicine.

Vaughan’s research is related to p53 gene mutations in lung cancer. Typically, the p53 gene serves to suppress tumors, however it is mutated in 69 percent of lung cancers as well as a large number of other cancers. Most p53 mutations are what are known as gain-of-function (GOF) mutations, which cause the gene to function in a new oncogenic way. 

“We’re developing a novel gene therapy that targets the distinct DNA differences in cells with gain of function mutant p53. This approach allows the therapy to impact only cancer cells while sparing normal, healthy cells,” says Vaughan. “There could be huge potential in this approach due to the number of cancers associated with p53 gene mutations.” 

The therapy works through a mechanism by which cells with GOF mutant p53 activate a synthetic promoter to express a protein known as Herpes Simplex Virus 1 Thymidine Kinase (HSV-1 TK), which targets them for apoptosis, a form of cell suicide. This approach will cause GOF p53 expressing cells to undergo cell death while sparing healthy cells with non-mutant p53.

“I’m honored to have received the AACR-AstraZeneca Fellowship in Lung Cancer Research, and I’m thankful for the support of Dr. Deb, who submitted a letter of recommendation and encouraged me to apply,” says Vaughan. “I’m hopeful this research will lead to new, more effective treatments for lung cancer and possibly many other cancers.”

Written by: Massey Communications Office

Posted on: July 11, 2019