Verline Justilien, Ph.D.

Verline Justilien, Ph.D.

Mayo Clinic location: Jacksonville, Florida

Research topic or interests: Alterations in gene expression (epigenetics) and their associated molecular effects occurring in the cells that become lung tumors and drive tumor progression, maintenance, spread and resistance to chemotherapy

Why did you choose research as a career?

I have been driven towards science ever since I can remember. I participated in a science magnet program during high school, which sparked my interest in aberrant molecular events that result in disease formation and how we can use our understanding of these faulty events to discover novel therapies for patients.

As a college undergraduate, I participated in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which helped to solidify my interest in scientific research and played a vital role in my decision to become a scientist. In addition to my research, teaching and mentoring students is also an important goal for me because of the positive and nurturing experiences that I had during the various stages of my scientific research training.

What type of research are you doing?

I am interested in the genetics, biochemistry and cell biology of lung cancer. Specifically, oncogenic signaling that occurs in tumor initiating cells that play a role in the initiation, progression and metastatic potential of lung cancer.

As a model, we are using lung squamous cell carcinoma, a major subtype of lung cancer in which more than 80 percent of cases harbor an increase above the normal number of Ect2 gene copies. This model helps determine the functional consequence of Ect2 gene amplification in the initiation, pathological progression and maintenance of cancer. We use a combination of cell-based in vitro and in vivo tumor models, genomic, proteomic and bioinformatics approaches to perform our studies. We are identifying ways to develop novel drug combinations that therapeutically block oncogenic Ect2 function in lung cancer cells.

How does the Center for Biomedical Discovery fuel your research?

The Career Development Award is directly supporting my efforts to build a successful, independent research program that will contribute to improved care for lung cancer patients. Through the center, I have acquired resources to more quickly conduct studies to address my research questions. Results generated from these studies have enabled me to successfully compete for funding and engage in productive collaborations.

How do you hope your research will advance our understanding of disease?

My goal is to enhance our understanding of lung cancer in a clinically meaningful way. I hope to identify oncogenic drivers of lung squamous carcinoma tumorigenesis and their associated oncogenic signaling pathways to enhance our understanding of lung squamous carcinoma initiation and pathological progression. This knowledge will ideally enable us to identify markers for early detection and diagnosis, and facilitate the design of an innovative strategy for treatment of patients with lung squamous carcinoma.

Ect2 gene copy number is also increased in bladder, breast, cervical, esophageal, head and neck, kidney, serous ovarian, stomach, and uterine cancers. Therefore, results from our studies on Ect2 may also impact the biology and therapeutic targeting of these other human cancer types.