Chai with a student in the lab. (Photo by Cori Vaughn, WSU Spokane)
SPOKANE, Wash. – A three-year study of how cancer cells stay “immortal” recently was funded by a $301,444 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funding was based on work done last year by WWAMI assistant professor Weihang Chai and published in The EMBO Journal.
Chai’s research focuses on telomeres, the protective tips of chromosomes. In normal cells, telomeres are shortened each time the cell divides. Eventually, when the telomeres become too short, the cell will die.
Cancer cells, however, have a mechanism that maintains the length of the telomeres, preventing the cell from dying. Chai has been studying telomeres to identify ways to block this mechanism, which potentially could slow down or stop the growth of cancer tumors.
In a previous study, Chai discovered that the structure of telomeres changes at one point in the cell cycle. She observed that this change coincided with the activation of a protein called cyclin dependent kinase 1, or CDK1.
This suggests that CDK1 plays a role in telomere maintenance, Chai said. She said this view also is supported by earlier studies done in yeast, a commonly used model organism for studying cancer.
In their new study, Chai and her team, which includes postdoctoral fellow Xueyu Dai and assistant scientist Chenhui Huang, will take an in-depth look at CDK1 and its interaction with other proteins that may be involved in telomere maintenance.

“We will be the first to observe how human CDK1 regulates telomere stability in human cells,” Chai said.
The grant funding was awarded through the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which supports research that increases understanding of life processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.