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

Janice Knepper in her lab

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: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit