School of Nursing researchers receive $2.1 million grant for gene study

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu

Contributing Writer


Researchers at the VCU School of Nursing have recently been supported by a $2.1 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research for the study of catechol-O-methyltransferase — a gene also known as COMT — that helps regulate hormones in the brain.

The primary focus of the research supported by the grant will be how COMT is linked to the cognitive decline of female patients undergoing chemotherapy. This cognitive decline commonly results in patients being in a confused state — a phenomenon known as “chemo brain.” Lead researcher, Director of Behavioral Laboratory Services in the School of Nursing Theresa Swift-Scanlan, will also look into how the COMT gene is expressed in nervous tissues and other parts of the body.

“From a nursing perspective, learning more about how this gene is expressed at the molecular level could be transformative — not just for the conditions we are interested in, such as hormonally-related cancers, but also distantly related neurodegenerative disorders,” Swift-Scanlan said.

The study’s co-researchers are VCU biostatistics professor R.K. Elswick and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychology and neuroscience professor Charlotte Boettiger.

Previous studies have shown that COMT is not only involved in cognitive decline but also Alzheimer’s disease, depression and other disorders due to its regulation of estrogen levels and neurotransmitters — or brain chemicals — like dopamine and norepinephrine.

One key issue stemming from the abnormality of the COMT gene during chemotherapy is when its hormone-producing function becomes irregular. This can lead to hormone-related cancers.

Further study of COMT could provide insight into the causes of several other diseases on a molecular level. What is known about COMT and its influence over neurotransmitter regulation and estrogen production might allow researchers to learn more about several other cognitive disorders and hormone-related cancers. It could also allow researchers to develop a treatment that prevents the dysregulation of the gene.

Swift-Scanlan said there has not been an efficient way until recently to better understand how COMT is involved in both cancer and neurodegenerative and behavior disorders.

“We hope this work can lead to interventions that reverse disruptions in healthy gene expression,” Swift-Scanlan said.

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