Exclusive: Canadian student's discovery could prevent cancer -- and HIV

Queen’s University student Caitlin Miron receiving the 2017 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation in Ottawa, Ontario

Caitlin Miron has found something huge: A week ago she was honoured for discovering a chemical compound with the ability to prevent cancer growth, but it could also have significant applications in halting the spread of HIV, too. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Canada News, the Ontario PhD student revealed why her discovery could be more far-reaching — for everything from HIV to Zika — than originally reported.

“There is also a quadruplex forming sequence in an area of HIV that’s responsible for infection of a human host,” Caitlin Miron, the PhD student at Queen’s University, Department of Chemistry who identified the compound said to Yahoo Canada News.

Miron’s research starts with the study of DNA. Most people have likely seen the double helix model of DNA but in our cells, to access the information in that double helix, the DNA has to become temporarily single-stranded.

Miron uses a necklace as an analogy for how single-stranded DNA functions. The strand of DNA is the chain of the necklace and then beads, or cellular machinery that reads and processes DNA to make proteins, are able to move freely along that chain.

“They can keep doing that until they come to a knot,” Miron said. “Usually the cell has a way to unravel that knot but if somebody’s gone there first and used superglue on that knot,…it is basically a permanent object and it’s a barrier so the beads can’t get passed it.”


The knot is an unusual fold of DNA, a guanine quadruplex or G4, and the newly discovered compound is that superglue that stabilizes the unusual architecture and blocks access to specific sections that come after it.

According to Miron, in the last ten years, research and advances in bioinformatics has show that a number of these knots can form directly in front of oncogenes, sections of DNA that if processed make proteins that contribute to cancer development and metastasis, which is the term used to describe cancer that spreads to a different part of the body from where it began.

“If we can block that process from happening, then maybe we’re going to be able to prevent certain aspects of cancer development or metastasis,” Miron said.

Through Miron’s research, it has also been discovered that this compound’s affects could move beyond cancer treatment.

“These knots are also known to form in a lot of different viruses, the Zika virus has one, so there are applications outside of cancer treatment,” Miron said.

In terms of the possible use in cancer treatment in particular, Miron says that there are different knots in different quadruplexes, some of which can be associated with most cancers and some that are more specific.

“At least one of [the knots] that leads to cancer cell immortality, that ability to continue dividing over and over again, is associate with about 85 per cent of cancers,” Miron said. “There is a little bit of potential specificity in there but it may also be something that could be broad spectrum, we don’t know at this point.”

Beginning her research

The Ottawa native started her journey with Dr. Anne Petitjean at her lab at Queen’s University.  Morin began volunteering over the course of her undergraduate degree, initially in biochemistry but switching to chemistry after loving her time in the lab. She was initially drawn to the study of DNA in high school, which continued to motivate her research interests throughout her undergraduate degree and into her PhD.

A significant turning point in Miron’s research occurred when the PhD student received scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Mitacs Globalink as travel supplements to study her compounds from the Petitjean lab in Kingston, Ontario at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology (IECB) in Bordeaux, France, under the supervision of Dr. Jean-Louis Mergny.

“Dr. Jean-Louis Mergny is probably one of the top researchers in the field of guanine quadruplex recognition,” Miron said. “They’ve pioneered this kind of high throughput screening platform that you can test a very large number of compounds to generate hits.”

When Miron arrived at the IECB, she did not have extensive experience with Mergny’s particular study of G4 and she had to learn a lot in the field, using the chemical compounds she brought over from Queen’s University.

“It wasn’t a field of research that we weren’t particularly based in so I had very little experience with the techniques that I was going to have to learn and the field itself,” Miron said. “It was mostly a matter of just getting there and diving in and asking questions and going from expert to expert with my compounds.”

Current status and future plans

At this point in the discovery, the provisional patent has been filed and publishing these findings would be the next step in the process. It could take a year before the formal patent is filed and additional research is required before it could be formally introduced to the medical industry.

“We are trying to think about how can we make these compounds more targeted to cancer cells, how can we improve their entrance through a cell membrane into a cell, all those things for biocompatibility, that will be important down the line for pharmaceuticals,” Miron said.

With this great success in research and significant notoriety, Miron has been wrapping up the work she has done with the Petitjean lab and the IECB, and is also focusing on bringing the techniques that she learned in France to Queen’s University. The PhD student was honoured to be recognized for the 2017 Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation, calling the whole process and subsequent acknowledgment from Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, an “emotional” experience.

“It’s a nice validation of the importance of the research and our progress in moving it forward,” Miron said.

As she continues to advance in her career, Miron has her mind set on working in industry versus academia, and is also interested in expanding her scope of research as she plans to move into a post-doctoral program, possibly even leaving her compound discovery behind for others at the Petitjean lab to continue.

“I would like to see where it goes but at the same time, if the last four years have taught me anything it’s that I also really like learning new things, and exploring new fields and getting that kind of multidisciplinary research,” Miron said. “I would like to stay in health applications but I don’t think I would limit myself to just cancer research, I’m definitely interested in looking at other things as well.”