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Pharmacy student’s DNA research wins ‘Think Big’ award

Rachel Carley’s work could one day contribute to a cancer cure

Rachel Carley, left, URI doctor of pharmacy student, works in the lab with one of her mentors, URI Assistant Professor of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Nisanne Ghonem.

A URI College of Pharmacy student proved she can think big, impressing a panel of alumni judges with her DNA research to win the “Think Big Tank” challenge recently.

Rachel Carley, a fourth-year PharmD student from South Kingstown, R.I., presented her work investigating how the human body can repair its DNA more efficiently. The human body harnesses 30 different repair proteins to fix abnormalities in a DNA strand, including cancers that grow lesions attached to the strand. One protein — XPC — is particularly effective at detecting bulky organic lesions attached to DNA and directing the body’s immune system to kill the cancer. However, the XPC tends to get stuck among the lesions, preventing it from continuing to seek out abnormalities along the DNA strand.

“We’re losing soldiers because they’re getting stuck,” Carley said. “We’re primarily focused on structure and kinetics of why it’s getting stuck. If you can figure out how to make it better at its job, you can cure cancer.”

To that end, Carley is working with other researchers at URI and at the University of Chicago. She has developed a method to purify the DNA using High Pressure Liquid Chromatography. The purification separates individual guanines (sections of DNA) so researchers can find the cancerous lesions on the DNA strand to study why XPC proteins get stuck. The purified guanines are then sent to Chicago, where researchers there continue the study.

For her work, Carley received a $2,000 scholarship, which she said “makes my dad very happy.” Upon graduation from the URI PharmD program, Carley, an Exeter, R.I., resident, plans to continue her graduate studies in pharmaceutical research and development, and perhaps become a professor one day.

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