The Breast Cancer Alliance has awarded UNC Lineberger’s Pengda Liu, PhD, a 2020 Young Investigator Grant.

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UNC Lineberger’s Pengda Liu, PhD.

The two-year award of $125,000 will support work in the Liu laboratory to systematically investigate a specific therapeutic target in basal-like breast cancer, an aggressive breast cancer type.

Many basal-like breast cancers are also often categorized as “triple negative,” a classification for breast cancer based on the characteristic of a lack of expression of any of the cell-surface receptors for targeted biologic therapies.

Liu will study the therapeutic potential of targeting a specific enzyme called deubiquitinase OTUD6B. Deubiquitinases are enzymes that help prevent proteins from being modified by ubiquitination.

They do this by removing so called “ubiquitin chains” from proteins, Liu said. These ubiquitin chains determine a proteins’ fate, Liu said. Usually, once a protein has been marked with an ubiquitin chain, the protein will be either targeted for degradation, or will perform other biological functions.

Along with researchers from the laboratory of UNC Lineberger’s Charles M. Perou, PhD, the May Goldman Shaw Distinguished Professor of Molecular Oncology, Liu’s laboratory found that the deubiquitinase OTUD6B enzyme is overexpressed in basal-like breast cancer. They confirmed that this enzyme plays an “essential” role in maintaining basal-like breast cancer cell growth, and suggesting that this enzyme could be a drug target for this cancer type.

“This award will enable my lab to further dissect the molecular mechanisms governed by OTUD6B in maintaining basal-like breast cancer proliferation, as well as perform more in-depth functional studies to validate a critical and indispensable pathophysiological function for OTUD6B that can be targeted to treat this type of breast cancer,” said Liu, who is a UNC Lineberger member and assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

Liu’s lab focuses on focuses on deciphering signaling events that drive cancer development, with the goal of developing new biomarkers for patient selection and identifying drug targets and potential therapeutics.

The grant is meant for researchers at an early stage in their careers to help provide seed funding needed to complete proof-of-concept evidence needed in order to apply for larger, longer-term grants. The alliance’s funding is meant to provide a critical bridge between novel research and the opportunity to generate preliminary results.