Putting genetic alterations on the map: Alison Taylor’s work on chromosome aberrations is adding detail to The Cancer Genome Atlas

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, the Meyerson Lab postdoc talks about her efforts to understand why cancer cells often have the wrong number of chromosomes, and shares what she’s learned as an emerging scientist

Alison Taylor has been interested in genetics since the fourth grade, when a special science class introduced her to the concept of Mendelian genetics. She was particularly motivated to understand the genetics of disease, as her grandfather died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), a rare neurodegenerative disease that in a small percentage of cases is hereditary. It was while she was studying as an undergraduate at MIT that she became intrigued by the field of cancer genetics and grew fascinated with the role genetic alterations play in helping cancer cells evade the natural safeguards that normally keep cell growth in check.

Now a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Matthew Meyerson at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad, Taylor studies functional genomics in cancer. Most recently, she co-authored multiple papers published as part of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) consortium’s Pan-Cancer Atlas, which aims to provide a comprehensive and holistic understanding of how, where, and why cancers arise in humans based on the sequencing and analysis of cancer tumor genomes.

Taylor describes her research, and shares what she’s learned as a research trainee in cancer genomics, in this #WhyIScience Q&A:

Q: Can you describe your work?
Currently, I’m studying aneuploidy and its role in cancer. In short: most healthy cells have 46 chromosomes that carry the cell’s DNA, but in almost 90 percent of tumors, there’s an incorrect number of chromosomes. These are called “aneuploid” cells and it’s been shown that these aneuploid cells are a contributing factor in the formation of cancer. However, exactly how these alterations are involved in tumorigenesis is largely unknown. In the Meyerson Lab, we’ve analyzed aneuploidy across over 10,000 patient samples as part of TCGA’s “Pan-Cancer Atlas” project to identify universal and cancer-type-specific characteristics of aneuploidy. In addition, we have generated new methods to simulate aneuploidy by cutting chromosomes at specific locations, to see what the impact of those deletions have in a specific cell type.

Alison Taylor at work in the Meyerson Lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Q: What has been the biggest milestone in your work so far?

A: Generating our cellular model of aneuploidy (using CRISPR/Cas9) was a huge challenge to overcome. It took years of experiments to get the system working and validated. But, the project’s success means that our work can now enable the development of more complex cellular models to investigate the effects of aneuploidy in cancer, and it can be expanded to investigate many alterations in a variety of cancer types.

Q: Prior to that work, what would you say was your biggest scientific accomplishment?

A: In graduate school, I studied a rare blood disease that affects children starting at one year of age. Through a drug screen, we found a class of drugs that might help patients with this disease that will soon enter clinical trials.

Q: What, in your opinion, are the biggest scientific challenges in your research field right now?

A: As a field, we are continually identifying cancer-specific genome alterations. The biggest challenge is to figure out how each of these many alterations contributes to cancer, and then to determine how we can use that information to specifically target cancer cells with effective therapeutics.

Q: You are about to present your work at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting. As a young scientist, what has been your experience with professional conferences thus far?

A: I find scientific conferences extremely valuable for several reasons. First, conferences often have training sessions (i.e. for grant writing) that are great for career development, and conferences provide opportunities to network and meet others in your field face-to-face. People I meet at conferences may be future colleagues, peers, and collaborators. And presenting your work at scientific meetings is a great opportunity for feedback, questions, and potential collaboration ideas from other scientists who have a deep understanding of your field.

Scientific conferences are also a great place to pick up on trends in science and policy. I once went to a meeting where I was able to hear a panel of cancer patients and patient advocates. Hearing from them was a reminder that not everyone has access to genomic testing for their cancers, or knowledge of clinical trials that could provide access to new, effective cancer treatments for their specific disease. It is important for us to continue research into functional genomics, but it’s also important to increase access to new findings and treatments around the U.S. and the world.