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Ph.D. candidates Sara Abudahab and Akua Donkor excel in research and explanations.

Sara Abudahab competes in the Tampa, Florida, regionals of the Three Minute Thesis competition.
By Leah Small
For VCU School of Pharmacy

Sara Abudahab and Akua Donkor, Ph.D. candidates in the VCU School of Pharmacy, are researching topics that outsiders might find intimidatingly complicated — epigenetics and healthy aging and the mechanisms behind tumor formation in plants, respectively. 

Nonetheless, both recently won awards for their ability to explain their work to non-scientists.

Abudahab won first place at the Eighth Annual VCU Three Minute Thesis competition for her ability to engagingly convey to a lay audience in three minutes the significance and workings of her research. Recently she was named one of eight finalists — out of 52 competing schools — in the regional Three Minute Thesis competition held by the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in Tampa, Florida.

Donkor, who studies medicinal chemistry, won the audience choice award in the VCU event.

The Three Minute Thesis competition, first held at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2008, now takes place at 600 universities in more than 60 countries. Graduate students compete to swiftly and effectively communicate their theses or dissertations. They are allowed a single, nonanimated slide.

Skills like these are important for researchers to be able to explain their work effectively and concisely. When public trust in science wavers, scientists’ ability to communicate becomes more important than ever. 

Abudahab, a research assistant in the lab of Joseph McClay, Ph.D., has held previous laboratory, science writing and teaching positions. 

She excels as both a scientist and communicator, McClay said. “Not only does she conduct technically challenging experiments that get great results, she takes the communication of her findings very seriously and her talks are always fun and interesting,” McClay said. “She has the ability to see the most important facets of her work in order to communicate them simply.”

Abudahab, who studies pharmacogenetics, explores the impact of genetics on how we respond to drugs as we age, to improve drug safety and efficacy. She researches how epigenetic marks — specific tags on top of our DNA sequence that trigger genes to turn on and off — change as we age. 

Over time, DNA gains or loses certain epigenetic marks. And some of those marks change in a “very systematic pattern,” Abudahab said — so systematic that scientists refer to them as epigenetic clocks. Epigenetic marks are extremely accurate predictors of age, Abudahab added. Learning more about how our epigenetic clocks tick could someday help care providers better personalize treatments.

“If we were able to detect those epigenetic changes in the liver, we could  predict, for example, that at this age, this enzyme will not be functional, so this drug is not recommended, or decide we need to change drug dosage,” Abudahab said. 

Understanding how epigenetic marks affect drug metabolism could eventually help prevent adverse drug reactions, particularly in the elderly, who are seven times more likely than younger patients to require hospitalization, due to adverse drug reactions. Abudahab tackles the problem in the lab by investigating how epigenetic marks in the liver may affect the production of enzymes that break down medications, as we age. 

In the aged livers of mice, Abudahab found changes in several epigenetic marks and aims to discover the extent to which the changes affect drug metabolism. The eventual goal would be to enable practitioners to analyze a patient’s epigenetic marks in conjunction with pharmacogenetic test results, which show how genetic traits would impact response to a specific drug.  

“So, if this moved to clinical settings, not only could you be treated differently than others, your 60-year-old self could be treated differently than you would now,” Abudahab said. 

Donkor won the audience choice award in VCU’s thesis competition, hosted by Graduate School Dean Daniel Bullard.

Donkor, meanwhile, is elucidating the mechanism by which specific bacteria in soil cause tumors to form in plants. Her work could provide insight into tumor formation in humans, possibly leading to new cancer treatments. 

Donkor is training in structural biology — a discipline that applies techniques in molecular biology and X-ray crystallography to drug discovery — in the lab of Martin Safo, Ph.D. 

Donkor is a Richard Glennon Medicinal Chemistry Research Award recipient for her accomplishments in research. Donkor is currently interning at Merck & Co.,  gaining additional experience in protein crystallization. 

“She is one of our most scholarly, gifted students,” Safo said. “She carries herself with confidence and shows impressive mentoring maturity. Her career path in structural biology will undoubtedly serve as a powerful motivator for other young women to venture into this research space.”

Donkor explains her work this way: When a plant is damaged, a protective response releases a chemical signal that attracts harmful bacteria. In a pathogenic game of telephone, a protein in the bacteria — VirA — garbles the chemical signal and sends it back to the plant. After receiving the garbled message, the plant’s cells divide uncontrollably, forming Crown gall, a type of plant tumor growth. Essentially, VirA hijacks a plant’s defenses, causing it to attack itself.

“Imagine there is a king who is going to war. He is wounded, and he sends out some guards to fight off any enemy who would attack him while he is wounded,” Donkor said. “But instead of these guards attacking the enemy, they get recruited — and come back and attack the king instead.”

Currently not much is known about VirA. Donkor is in the process of solving the structure of the protein, which would lead to better understanding of its function. Scientists use X-ray crystallography to determine protein structure, a process in which X-ray beams are diffracted through a crystallized protein to reveal a molecular, three-dimensional image on a photographic plate — a sort of scientific shadow play. 

Computational programs are used to refine the imaging. From there, Donkor could determine where the protein interacts with other proteins and molecules, in locations known as binding sites. In the realm of drug discovery, binding sites are where a drug would either slow or hasten a chemical reaction, among other responses. Based on the results, scientists tailor experimental drugs for optimal interaction with proteins, Donkor said. 

“It’s basically like having Lego pieces and putting them together,” she said. “Once you know the binding site, you know which Lego pieces are involved in the binding. So it enables you to understand how interactions take place with other proteins.”

Categories Graduate students, Research, Student news, Student research