Daniel McKay, assistant professor in the biology and genetics departments, received a four-year Research Scholar Grant from the American Cancer Society for his developmental gene regulation research in October.
The road to winning the grant was all but short – it took three years of writing and re-writing grant proposals until the hard work paid off.
“It’s a long, iterative process,” McKay said. “Basically there’s an excess of people who want to do research and not enough money.”
His work on development is highly relevant to cancer research. His lab investigates the mechanisms behind the development of cells – mechanisms that are at work in human diseases such as cancer.
“I want to understand what makes the cells in your body different from each other,” McKay said. “And I study development, the process through which those cells differentiate.”
His lab studies this process specifically in flies. Although flies are much less complex than humans, their genomes have much in common.
“Something like 75 percent of disease related genes in humans have a direct functional homolog in flies. So the conservation of our genome with flies means that what we learn in drosophila research often has a direct implication for what happens in humans,” McKay said. “Humans are sophisticated, complicated machines, so if we were an Italian sports car we’d be like a Ferrari – they’re crazy complicated. And I study flies because it’s basically a Vespa. It’s really simple, but it’s got the same parts.”
McKay said the money from the grant will largely be used for paying the salaries of the graduate students that work in his lab. The remaining funds will go toward the expenses associated with genome-wide data sets at UNC’s sequencing facility, as well as the costs of lab supplies, such as reagents and fly food.
Integrative Program for Biological and Genome Sciences is a UNC program and the administrator of the grant won by McKay’s lab. As one of 20 other faculty members who are a part of IBGS, McKay has relied on the program as a major source of support.
Robert Duronio, the program director of IBGS, said the program is built to hire scientists like McKay who can provide information needed to treat human disease.
“One of the unique things is that its operational mission is to hire faculty jointly between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine,” Duronio said.
Duronio believes McKay was chosen for the grant because of his fresh approach to fundamental issues.
“I think the reason they chose Dan is because he is using novel genomic technologies to study a really fundamental problem in developmental biology,” said Duronio.
Charles Saxe, the scientific program director for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Cell Biology and Metastasis Program, had similar praises regarding McKay’s work.
“He was chosen largely because they really like the idea that he was proposing to look at, and on top of that, they really thought that he was going to be able to accomplish what he proposed to accomplish, so it’s not only a matter of having very great ideas, but actually being able to turn those ideas into something tangible,” Saxe said. “I think he’s very well-positioned to not only become a very good developmental biologist but to become a very outstanding cancer biologist as well.”
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