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Kathleen Burns on Mobile DNA and Cancer

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Kathleen Burns on Mobile DNA and Cancer

Interviewed by Catherine Gara

Kathleen Burns on Mobile DNA and Cancer

Kathleen Burns is an associate professor of pathology and oncology. She studies mobile sequences of DNA that account for most of the genome and seem to play a role in cancer. 

What do you study?

BURNS: I study mobile DNA, sequences of DNA that move in genomes. In humans, mobile DNA copy themselves and add that copy to the genome, creating repeat sequences in our DNA. These repeats account for most of our genome—only about 1 percent of it is gene exons that have the code for making proteins.

Why mobile DNA?

BURNS: Initially, I was captivated by what DNA looks like in a cell nucleus under the microscope. There, it’s packaged and organized by its regulatory proteins, and we call the whole entity chromatin. I trained as an M.D.-Ph.D. at Baylor College of Medicine, and my mentor was a clinical pathologist. We were studying developmental defects that change the way DNA is packaged in egg cells and early mouse embryos. Later, as a pathology resident at Johns Hopkins, I also spent a lot of time looking at chromatin by microscopy.

When I realized that most molecular biologists focus on the functions of only small fractions of our DNA, I knew I wanted to study the rest of it—the understudied “junk DNA.” I just assumed that if mobile DNA account for most of our genome, they must be interesting and relevant to human disease.

And what have you found about their role in disease?

BURNS: We now know that the copying and pasting of mobile DNA are kept in check by most healthy cells, and that many cancers lose that regulation. This can result, for example, in a detrimental mobile DNA insertion that interrupts a cancer-fighting gene. We are studying how mobile DNA are turned on in cancers because it may help us better detect them. We’re looking at what genes they may target and other ways that their increased activity may be promoting cancer. We are also studying how cancer cells adapt to mobile DNA activity that seems to kill healthy cells.

We also know that everyone inherits different patterns of these repetitive, mobile DNA. We are trying to figure out whether there are certain repetitive sequences that predispose some people to developing cancers and other diseases.

What advice do you have for scientists-in-training?

BURNS: You need a genuine curiosity for the work you’re doing because that will motivate you. No one else can provide it for you. You have to enjoy thinking about your topic to the point that you can’t help thinking about it! If you have that, you will naturally own your research project. You will constantly be questioning the significance of your findings, asking yourself what’s your next step and developing your ideas by talking with colleagues.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at work?

BURNS: I love hanging out and goofing off with my husband—who is also a Johns Hopkins physician-scientist—and our three little kids. Having a family life and work life is busy, but they make me so happy. I can’t imagine life without either of them.

#TomorrowsDiscoveries: Repetitive DNA and Cancer — Dr. Kathleen Burns

#TomorrowsDiscoveries: Repetitive DNA comprises most of our genetic makeup, but much about its function is mysterious. Dr. Kathleen Burns studies repetitive DNA to detect and kill cancer cells.