June 6, 2018:

Investigator Spotlight

Emily Dykhuizen, PhD Purdue University Center for Cancer Research 

Educational Background

  • BA, Reed College, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • PhD, UW-Madison, Chemistry
  • Postdoc, Stanford University, Chromatin Biology

Research Interests

My lab works on understanding the role of chromatin regulation on cancer initiation and progression. More specifically, we look at how chromatin regulators regulate gene expression in response to environmental changes. From this information we outline how patient mutations found in chromatin regulators cooperate with the metabolic environment to promote cancer. We then develop strategies to inhibit these pathways to treat a variety of highly chemoresistant cancers such as glioblastoma, kidney cancer, and ovarian cancers.

My lab collaborates with chemists, structural biologists, biochemists and cancer biologists across the Big Ten to identify how chromatin regulators contribute to cancer initiation, cancer metastasis and chemotherapy resistance, and most importantly, to identify how we can target these processes with novel small molecules to help patients with deadly cancers.

Little-known facts about Dr. Dykhuizen:

  • My husband and I have two kids (6 and 3), one cat, and three chickens.
  • I’ve lived all over the country but was actually born right here in Lafayette, Indiana (although we moved when I was 2).
  • I used to be quite a movie buff, but somehow I have never seen a James Bond movie.


Thought Leader Perspectives

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W. Andy Tao, PhD Professor of Biochemistry

Story provided courtesy of PU Center for Cancer Research.

Andy Tao tempered his expectations when his lab started an experiment to see whether they could identify phosphorylated proteins in blood.

Phosphorylation — the addition of a phosphate group to a protein — is often a precursor to cancer cell formation, but detecting the process would only be half the battle. They needed to correctly identify the phosphorylated proteins in the blood of patients known to have cancer.

“My student, Blair Chen, got the data and immediately came to my office,” Tao says. “She detected over a thousand phosphorylated proteins from 1 milliliter of plasma in a single experiment. She was shocked, and I was totally overwhelmed.”

For years, scientists have searched for biomarkers, measurable substances in the body that correlate with the presence of disease or infection. The promise is the ability to detect cancer, viruses, heart disease and other maladies through a simple blood draw or urine analysis. But success has been elusive.

Tao’s potentially transformative result is one of many success stories in the Department of Biochemistry, which boasts more than half its faculty — 13 of 23 — as members of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research (PCCR). Their work explores many of the complex mechanisms that control cell function and how those can go wrong, with sometimes devastating consequences.

“We have a lot of research going on in cancer,” says Andrew Mesecar, head of the department. “Our degree in biochemistry is broader in scope than many other biochemistry programs at Purdue or elsewhere. Our students come out with a better, in-depth exposure to a wide range of our science.”

As faculty in the College of Agriculture, researchers work with a variety of model organisms — algae, yeast, zebrafish, fruit flies and mice, among others — to understand the basic pathways that lead perfectly normal cells to become cancerous, or cancerous cells that were vulnerable to drug therapies to become hopelessly resistant ones.

“It allows us the opportunity to think more broadly about the basic science of life and all life forms,” Mesecar says. “Here, our scientists are free to explore the commonalities of different organisms. We can identify genes involved in cancer faster in simple systems, identify human gene analogs and apply our understanding to humans quickly.”

Story author and source: Brian Wallheimer

About the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium: The Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium was created in 2013 to transform the conduct of cancer research through collaborative, hypothesis-driven, highly translational oncology trials that leverage the scientific and clinical expertise of Big Ten universities. The goal of the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium is to create a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to new approaches to cancer treatment. Within this innovative environment, today’s research leaders collaborate with and mentor the research leaders of tomorrow with the unified goal of improving the lives of all patients with cancer.

About the Big Ten Conference: The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to almost 9,500 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org.