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HelbingMolecular biologist wins award for frog research

A UVic researcher who hopes to help find a cure for cancer by studying frogs is the winner of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) / American Chemistry Council Early Career Award in Applied Ecology.

The $100,000 US award encourages professionals at the start of their careers to research topics related to ecosystem dynamics, environmental exposure, or ecological risk assessment and management.

Dr. Caren Helbing (biochemistry and microbiology) assesses how chemicals disrupt normal cell activity in response to hormones in frogs, illuminating how environmental agents could contribute to diseases such as cancer.

She’s studying how thyroid hormones influence cell activity. “Thyroid hormones are very important for human health, especially in babies where they’re required for proper brain development,” Helbing explains. “Frogs are very sensitive to thyroid hormones. As a matter of fact, they’re essential for the metamorphosis of a tadpole into a frog. They cause the tail to destroy itself and for the legs to grow. Therefore, frogs can act as indicators for disruption of thyroid hormone action.

“By comparing the growth conditions with death conditions we can learn how a cell processes a hormonal signal to result in growth or death. Using this knowledge, we may be able to convince a cancer cell, through our manipulations, to actually kill itself selectively.”

Helbing was presented with the award in mid-November at SETAC’s annual meeting in Utah. She already holds a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council faculty research award and an NSERC strategic grant for the development of her frog microarray—a technology that provides a “snapshot” of gene activity before and after chemical exposure. This technology has the potential to aid in screening chemicals for detrimental effects.

Photo: Helbing and frog tadpoles. (Maria Lironi photo)