Biology Professor and Her Students Discover Lesser-Known Gene Associated with Breast Cancer

Graduate student Amber Shelton '17 CLAS, '18 MS, (left) is co-author of Professor Janice Knepper's study

Graduate student Amber Shelton '17 CLAS, '18 MS, is co-author of Professor Janice Knepper's study

Villanova University biology professor Janice Knepper, PhD
Villanova University biology professor Janice Knepper, PhD

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Villanova University biology professor Janice Knepper, PhD, and her students have discovered that a gene, previously poorly characterized, can be associated with breast cancer. Over the last eight years, Knepper and her students have been working with the gene, ZC3H8, simply known has Fliz1. The findings were recently published in BMC Cancer, a peer-reviewed open-source medical journal.

Researchers and oncologists relentlessly study how genes affect cancer development and progression. When looking at individual genes in cancer, the genes either help promote it, which leads to more aggressive forms of cancer, or they help prevent it. The Villanova team discovered that Fliz1 can contribute to more aggressive behavior in cancer. However, this is just the start of the process.

“In terms of the impact on the medical field, this is step one,” said Knepper. “There are more than 20,000 genes in the human body and 70 are currently used to assess prognosis for breast cancer. We’re not oncologists, but we certainly can see how down the road clinicians would be able to better identify disruptive genes in a breast cancer diagnosis. This gene was certainly not on their radar before.”

Fliz1 is an essential gene, one that cells cannot live without. The team is continuing additional tests and research to determine cellular effects as a result of alterations to the protein sequence. Similar to adjusting the volume on a speaker, they’re looking to find out how much is too much or not enough that could damage the cell.

“We think this is the first major milestone and is just the tip of the iceberg,” said John Schmidt, PhD, lead author and visiting assistant professor in Villanova’s biology department. “We don’t quite yet have a grip on the mechanism of this protein, but this is certainly the start of something more. It opens up a new pathway in molecular biology.”

This new research involved former Villanova undergraduate students, five of whom are listed as co-authors on the research. They are: Emily R. Duffner, ’17 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), Sara G. Radecki, ’14 CLAS, Gerard T. Walker, ’17 CLAS, Amber Shelton, ’17 CLAS, ’18 MS and Tianjiao Wang, ’14 CLAS. The students began working in Dr. Knepper’s lab during their sophomore or junior years. Former Villanova research associate professor Keith Danielson, PhD, was also involved in the research.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for our students, and they certainly rose to the occasion,” said Knepper, noting that all five are currently working or doing postgraduate study in science or medical fields.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.