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Q&A With Dr. James Heslop

Institution: Medical University of South Carolina
Project Title: The role of GATA6 in endoderm formation and specification

1. What is your first memory/experience of wanting to be involved in scientific research?

I have been fascinated by science for as long as I can remember; however, I was unsure about how to turn this interest into a career. As part of my senior year at college, I completed a practical module in a research lab. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, particularly the investigation of research questions that had not previously been answered. During this time, I also had the opportunity to talk with the PhD students and Post-docs in the lab – these interactions solidified my desire to be involved with scientific research, and gave me a clear pathway to achieve that goal.


2. How did you learn that you had won an ALF Research Award?

I was delighted to receive an email from the ALF research awards consultant congratulating me on being selected for the ALF research award.

3. Describe your Research Award Project in very simple (layman) language?

The gene GATA6 has the ability to bind and modify regions of DNA which are inaccessible to most factors. Due to the capacity to bind in a non-permissive environment and make it hospitable to others, GATA6 and a small subset of similar genes have been termed ‘pioneer factors’. My research aims to elucidate whether or not GATA6 works as a pioneer factor during liver development and if this function could contribute to disease states associated with GATA6, such as liver cancer and the malformation of the gallbladder and bile ducts. We anticipate that our work will shed new light on how cells commit to forming the liver/gallbladder, how GATA6 facilitates these cell fate decisions in normal development and how these mechanisms could influence disease states.

4. What do you hope your research project will lead to:

a. In the short term?

Identification of the specific means by which GATA6 functions during liver development.

b. In its overall contribution to a specific area of liver research?

We anticipate that our research will allow for a greater understanding of how GATA6, and other pioneer factors, function during liver development. Moreover, we hope this work will help to establish the mechanisms which underlie the diseases associated with GATA6 and, in the longer term, lead to the identification of therapies to target these processes.

5. How did you first hear about the ALF Research Award Program?

I completed a search of foundations that would be interested in funding/supporting research into liver development and disease. I was excited to discover the ALF research award program, which was a perfect fit for my research interests.

6. What is the one thing you would like readers to know about why liver research is so important?

The liver is a remarkable organ that performs many tasks essential to an individual’s well-being. Unfortunately, the number of people suffering with diseases of the liver, such as: hepatitis C, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver cancer, are on the rise. Therefore, understanding how the liver develops, functions and repairs itself in health and disease is imperative for developing strategies to prevent, alleviate and/or cure liver disorders.

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