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PhD study brings non-coding RNA out of the shadows

Tuesday 22 August 2017 11:30am

Zoe Ward, PhD candidateZoe Ward, PhD candidate

The world of science these days is less about lab benches and test tubes, but is increasingly computer-based, analysing high volumes of complex data.

PhD candidate Zoe Ward, is working in this relatively new field of medical research known as bioinformatics.

Zoe is a PhD candidate with the Molecular Biology and Genetics team at the Christchurch Heart Institute, a University of Otago Research Centre.

Zoe spends her days exploring an area of human genetics known as non-coding ribonucleic acid (RNA). Just like deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), RNA is vital for all living things.

“Non-coding means the RNA doesn’t go on to produce proteins which have many critical roles in our cells. For many years coding RNA and proteins have been the main focus of research. The regions where non-coding RNA’s reside in our genome have until recently been thought as “junk” and of no use to the body. However, since their discovery there is growing evidence that they are highly involved in important biological processes and they have been implicated in many disease states.”

“My project is computer-based, analysing large volumes of complex RNA sequence data to produce a strategy that can be used as a pathway towards developing new approaches in clinical care. Specifically, the aim is to investigate how these non-coding RNAs in our genetic material contribute to coronary heart disease risk, and to develop non-coding RNA blood biomarkers to help predict progression in coronary heart disease patients.”

The PhD study will run for three years. “We will measure non-coding RNAs in patients at 4 months and 12 months after hospital admission for coronary heart disease, and compare RNA levels in patients who develop heart failure between these two time points with those who remain event-free. Patients from each group will be age, gender and ethnicity-matched.”

Zoe came to New Zealand three years ago having spent the previous 14 years at University College London and Guys Hospital working in genomics laboratories as an application specialist providing expertise in state of the art sequencing technologies for different research groups.

“I am very excited about the bioinformatics project. It’s a new frontier in science. Fascinating, with huge potential to understand disease processes leading to more targeted therapies and health prediction.”

Being part of a new area in science is very exciting for Zoe who receives specialist supervision from Dr Anna Pilbrow and Professor Vicky Cameron of the Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI), Dr John Pearson at University of Otago Christchurch and Dr Sebastian Schmeier at Massey University.

“I am enjoying being part of the CHI with University of Otago Christchurch. Both the research group and the Department have been very welcoming. Professor Lutz Beckert, Head of the Department of Medicine, made his open door policy clear to me, which I really appreciate.”

Zoe is very appreciative of Dr Anna Pilbrow, who encouraged her to take her career further by enrolling for a PhD.

“She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I’m thankful to her that I’m doing this (the PhD). The team feels like a family.”