By Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane Office of Research

ChaiSPOKANE, Wash. – Molecular biologist Weihang Chai, an associate professor of medical sciences, has received a five-year $1.45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the potential role of the CST protein complex in preserving genome stability.

Genome instability—a high frequency of changes and rearrangements of DNA sequences in cells—can lead to cancer and has also been linked to certain neurodegenerative diseases. Chai said genome stability is threatened by environmental toxins, such as ultraviolet radiation, which stress and sometimes stall the process by which DNA replicates, causing damage.

Mechanisms that restart and repair stalled replication are in place, but are not yet understood. Recent studies have shown that deficiencies in the CST complex—which consists of three genes known as Ctc1, Stn1 and Ten1—impair the restarting and repair of stalled DNA replication. This has led Chai to hypothesize that CST may somehow help facilitate replication and prevent breakage of DNA in fragile sites.

Her work could provide novel insights into how cells counteract DNA damage caused by genotoxin-induced replication stress. It also has the potential to lead to improved screening for diseases linked to mutations in the genes in the CST complex, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary fibrosis and two rare conditions with aging-related symptoms—Coats plus syndrome and dyskeratosis congenita.