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Susan G. Komen for the Cure awards Skibbens a grant to fund his research

Robert Skibbens

Breast and ovarian cancers dramatically impact the lives of affected women, but the underlying causes remain obscured. Thanks to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one Lehigh professor’s research may help change that.

Robert Skibbens, associate professor of biological sciences, was recently named a recipient of a two-year research grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the nation’s largest private funding sources focused on breast health and breast cancer. The organization funds research projects that have great potential to change the way breast cancer is diagnosed, treated, understood and survived.

“I am very excited that research in the department of biological sciences has been chosen for support by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, whose promise is ‘to save lives and end breast cancer forever,’” says Jeffrey Sands, professor and department chair. “It’s a strong testimony to the quality and significance of Bob Skibbens’ research program that his work using yeast has been chosen for funding by the premier foundation aimed at ending breast cancer.”

Prior to cell division, each chromosome is replicated to produce two identical sister chromatids. When the cell divides, each daughter cell receives one of the two sister chromatids to produce an exact genetic copy of the parent cell. Errors in chromosome segregation produce cells with an abnormal number of chromosomes—either too few or too many. Known as aneuploids, these abnormalities can result in cancerous cells.

Skibbens’ work focuses primarily on the process by which chromosomes become improperly segregated during cell division.

“Those mis-segregated chromosomes are hallmarks of tumorigenic cells,” says Skibbens, whose work on the grant began in September.

Skibbens’ lab studies the process by which sister chromatids are first paired together early in the cell cycle. His current research involves a newly discovered protein, Ctf7p, which is required to establish sister chromatid cohesion during DNA replication. This protein is needed to “glue” the two sister chromatids together. By using genetic and biochemical methods to identify other proteins that interact with Ctf7p, his lab gains insight into how new mutations result in improper pairing and random segregation to produce aneuploid cells.

“With this grant we are able to take a fairly new direction for the lab, but it’s predicated on work we’ve done in the past,” says Skibbens, whose students at both the graduate and undergraduate level will have the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing research.

“Bob has made several fundamental discoveries in the field of cell division biology. He has identified genes that are crucial for the fidelity of chromosome transmission and he has established a link between chromosome cohesion and cancer,” adds Sands. “The Komen grant will allow Bob to extend these studies in ways that may have a direct impact down the road on the treatment and prevention of breast and other types of cancer.”

His lab uses budding yeast as a model organism. Since the entire sequence is known and mutations are readily generated, yeast allows the Skibbens’ lab to understand how cohesion proteins interact in a cell system that can be quickly applied to studies in human cells.

“The proteins that drive the functions in yeast also drive them in human cells,” Skibbens says, noting that the opportunity to first gain answers from the yeast before moving to human cells was likely one of the areas of interest to the Komen Foundation.

“This really is basic science, driven from asking questions,” he adds. “But some of the answers here are much more clinically relevant. We’re, of course, very excited about it.”

--Tricia Long

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2007

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