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The Li Lab is located in the Women's Oncology Center in MR-6, and is associated with the Pathology Department of the University of Virginia Medical School.

Dr. Li explains research in the lab to Stand Up To Cancer

Our research focuses on chimeric RNA in cancer and normal cells. Gene fusion is a common feature of cancer. The fusion products were believed to be unique to cancer cells until recently we demonstrated that abundant level of fusion products can also be present in normal cells. In these normal cells, the fusion products are made by a post-transcriptional process called “trans-splicing” to serve important functions.

Our long-term hypotheses are that such trans-splicings are more than rare events and they play critical roles in normal physiology. In addition, mis-regulated trans-splicing machinery could generate highly abundant fusion products, which would promote oncogenesis the same way as the products made by traditional chromosomal rearrangements. 

To discover more RNA trans-splicing events, we propose two approaches, a candidate gene approach and a genome-wide approach.  The candidate gene approach would focus on the known gene fusions associated with chromosomal translocations in various tumors.  We predict that at least some of the fusion products can also be detected in the normal corresponding cells at certain conditions. The key is “when” and “where” to look for such events.  For the genome-wide approach, we propose a modified “mate-pair” combined with  “paired-end” deep sequencing approach to document the whole transcriptome trans-splicing events in the cells of interest. To validate the candidates of trans-splicing, we are developing an intra-cellular based trans-splicing assay with high throughput potential. Our preliminary studies support the second part of the hypothesis that at least some fusions are the mis-regulated products of trans-splicing. Gain of function and loss of function approaches will be used to study the effect of the trans-spliced chimeric products on cancer development.

Our proposed trans-splicing study will enhance our knowledge of the genetic information flow, suggest a novel oncogenic pathway, and provide additional links between cancer and its normal origin cells. In addition, the proposed study of trans-splicing will have both immediate and long-term clinical implications.

The Li lab is supported by:

Funds for Excellence in Science and Technology
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