The major goal of our research is to develop novel RNA-based diagnostics and therapeutics for aggressive forms of human cancer, particularly urologic cancers. My laboratory specifically focuses on an abundant class of noncoding RNAs, called microRNAs (miRNAs), and determines how they influence cancer progression pathways when misexpressed. Cancer is marked by uncontrolled proliferation and inappropriate survival of damaged cells in the body. Interestingly, many processes used to direct the proper growth, differentiation, and cell death of tissues in the developing embryo, are identical to the genetic pathways that are perturbed in the cancerous state. My laboratory is very interested in studying how miRNAs control developmental events and how this relates to cancer progression. We use the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), an organism easily grown and studied in the laboratory and amendable to genetic manipulation, to characterize miRNAs sharing high conservation across species (i.e. let-7 & lin-4 families). The nematode is a powerful tool for gene discovery to identify targets regulated by these miRNA families that control cancer-associated processes. Our lab also employs mouse models, immortalized human cell lines and human specimens banked in the EVMS biorepository to functionally characterize miRNAs found in our profiling screens that closely correlated with aggressive forms of prostate cancer. Our work currently centers around members of the miR-888 cluster, a novel group of seven miRNAs that are elevated in prostate cancer patients with high-grade disease and control prostate cell proliferation, migration, invasion and colony formation in vitro and in vivo. We aim to test these miRNAs as therapeutic targets using novel anti-sense miRNA delivery vehicles in mouse cancer models. Investigating the function of conserved miRNAs in both nematode and mammalian systems promises to reveal a novel class of cancer progression genes with immense clinical potential.
Aurora Esquela Kerscher received her B.A. in Biology from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri and completed a M.S. in Biotechnology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2003, she earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her Ph.D. thesis work in Dr. Se-Jin Lee's laboratory provided her with a firm foundation in mammalian development utilizing mouse models to elucidate the function of novel members of the TGF-Beta Family in liver and kidney organogenesis. Dr. Kerscher's interest in microRNAs and their role in development and disease began during her postdoctoral fellowship in Dr. Frank Slack's laboratory at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2007, Dr. Kerscher joined the faculty at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia and continued her research studying microRNAs and cancer. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology at EVMS and a member of the Leroy T. Canoles Jr. Cancer Research Center.