Can something as simple as a droplet of protein change the survival rate of people with acute myeloid leukaemia?  

Dr N. Amy Yewdall, a biochemist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury, is about to find out.  

Dr Yewdall has been granted $110,000 from the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation to unravel protein and nucleic acid interactions to gain insight into disease progression, specifically in people with acute myeloid leukaemia, a type of cancer of the blood. 

In New Zealand, around 700 adults and 40 children are diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia every year. The survival rate is just 25%. 

“When someone has acute myeloid leukaemia, it’s because proteins inside the cells have mutated, and that can disrupt cellular function and form cancer,” says Amy.  

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Dr Yewdall wants to figure out how these mutations affect the way in which protein droplets are formed inside the body. 

Usually, in healthy cells proteins bind to ribonucleic acid (RNA) to form droplets, but Dr Yewdall and her team believe the mutations could be stopping that from happening.  

“We think that the mutations are causing the protein to bind with DNA instead of RNA, binding with a different nucleic acid would have flow-on effects, which could include the development of acute myeloid leukaemia.” 

“If our findings prove this is happening, then wouldn’t it be incredible if we could find a way to regulate how these proteins come together. For example, imagine if we could develop a drug that could change the interactions between the proteins and their partner. That would be a game-changer.” 

As part of the project, Dr Yewdall and her team will determine how proteins interact to form droplets in the test tube. The findings will be critical to understanding how they work, and just as importantly, how they don’t. 

“Often in the cell, there’s all these other things that are going on with proteins and molecules that can influence how we interpret the data. By looking at proteins in the test tube, you can isolate these interactions, and add in components to control and understand what you’re looking at.” 

This research is set to start in March next year. It’s an opportunity Dr Yewdall is “incredibly grateful” for. 
“I’m an early career researcher, so having this support from CMRF is huge. It’s nice to know that emerging researchers like me have the ability to apply for funding at CMRF.” 

Dr Yewdall is originally from North Canterbury. Growing up, her interest in how things work led her to follow a career in biochemistry, where she studied abroad at Cambridge University. She completed her doctorate at University of Canterbury, before gaining postdoctoral experience in the Netherlands. Amy is now back in New Zealand and is looking forward to starting her own research group at the University of Canterbury.  

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