New research into mutations that arise in tumors that will be led by Cal State San Bernardino Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry assistant professor Jason Burke could lead to future breakthroughs in cancer treatments, thanks to a new grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As part of this new research, undergraduate students will receive training in laboratory techniques such as gene engineering, recombinant protein expression and purification, and protein X-ray crystallography. These efforts are being funded by a four-year NIH grant totaling more than $440,000.

“As a result of this research, we will achieve a more sophisticated understanding of the molecular basis of cancers,” Burke said. “It is our hope that this research will enable future efforts to identify novel therapeutics to treat cancers.”

Burke and his students will be investigating certain mutations that disrupt the retinoblastoma protein that is known as an important tumor suppressor. Studies have shown that this protein becomes mutated as the cancer progresses, and this is correlated with the onset of more aggressive cancers.

The retinoblastoma protein “plays a role in many types of cancers, and is one of the most frequent hot spots for mutations as cancers mutate, evolve, and worsen,” Burke said.

The cancers this protein is correlated with include a certain type of lung cancer that is often related to smoking and a particular type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma, he added.

Using various laboratory techniques, Burke and his students will be studying the different ways these mutations affect the protein.

American Cancer Society statistics for 2020 estimated 1.8 million new cancer cases diagnosed, and 606,520 cancer deaths.

“I am very proud that Jason has secured this important funding to support this very important research work,” said Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “Even more importantly, this offers profound opportunities for our undergraduate students to get hands-on experience in laboratory research in a very critical area at the intersection of chemical, medical, and biological research. This significant work will bring new discoveries to the classroom, our college, and our university.”

Burke earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before that, he had been a Cancer Research Training Award Fellow from 2004 to 2006 at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. After he completed his Ph.D., he was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Postdoctoral Fellow from 2013 to 2018 at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. While he was a Salk Institute, Burke was the first author on a study on how plants can manufacture compounds that help them repel pests, attract pollinators, cure infections, and protect themselves from excess temperatures, drought, and other hazards in the environments.

In his College of Natural Sciences lab, Burke focuses on techniques in structural biology, enzymology and biochemistry to answer fundamental questions about protein structure-function relationships as they relate to protein evolution and disease.

Burke was one of four CNS recipients of a 2019 Summer Research Fellowship. He also served as a faculty mentor and juror for the 9th annual Student Research Symposium: Meeting of the Minds, organized by the university’s Office of Student Research this past May.