The horizon for sustainable energy and cancer treatment may soon become a little bit brighter, thanks to pioneering new research being performed by Dr. Nehalkumar Thakor.
Thakor is the new Campus Alberta Innovates Program Chair of Synthetic Biology and RNA-based Systems at the University of Lethbridge. Appointed to the seven-year position this past September, the microbiologist is undertaking an innovative research program that will explore two distinct aspects of gene expression regulation. The first will look at how to use metabolic engineering and gene expression to produce sustainable energy.
“Humankind is being challenged right now because we are running out of our fossil fuel supply and we need an alternative energy source,” says Thakor, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “My general objective is to study RNA-based system biology, particularly in the area of energy and environment.”
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a molecule involved in a variety of biological functions, including coding, decoding, regulating and expressing genes. Thakor’s goal is to try to use RNA to adjust the genetic expression that occurs in the cells of microorganisms. Achieving that would make it possible to then feed microorganisms plant waste that they would then convert into glucose, a core ingredient of biofuel.
This type of biofuel, Thakor says, is more sustainable than the most common alternatives currently available — biodiesel and bioethanol, both of which rely on using agriculture (canola for biodiesel and corn for ethanol) for their production.
“The problem is that lots of arable land is required to produce those biofuels, and this ultimately competes with food production,” he says. He adds that ultimately his research could improve the sustainability of other biotechnological processes, such as those involved in producing antibiotics and biodegradable plastics.
Thakor’s second research priority is to examine the role of gene expression regulation in protein translation during oncogenesis, or the formation of cancer. Specifically, he wants to understand why a regular a cell exposed to stress — such as being deprived of oxygen or nutrients — will die, but a cancer cell will survive.
Much of the existing research on this subject has shown that cancer cells increase the rate of protein synthesis — a vital cellular process that regulates growth and metabolism — which ultimately promotes the survival and progression of cancer. Thakor will investigate the cellular, biochemical, molecular and structural aspects of the regulation of protein translation to determine how these processes affect the development of cancer.
“By learning more about how protein translation occurs in cancer cells, it may provide us with insights into how we can create more effective cancer treatments,” he says.
In addition to his research, Thakor is also developing two new graduate-level elective courses: one on gene expression in health and disease, which he will start teaching in January, and another on immunology.
“I hope my research and teaching can provide students with a basis of understanding of different environmental- and health-related aspects of science and help them go on to become skilled scientists and good doctors,” he says.