Posted on 21st December 2022 by bwarman

Introducing Dr Özgen Deniz

Profile photo of Dr Ozgen Deniz.
Dr Özgen Deniz.

We are pleased to welcome Dr Özgen Deniz to Barts Cancer Institute (BCI) at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer and Group Leader. After receiving a Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellowship, Dr Deniz is establishing her own independent research group in BCI’s Centre for Haemato-Oncology.

Dr Deniz received her undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey before moving to Ruprecht Karls University in Heidelberg, Germany for her MSc degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. She completed her PhD in 2014 with Professor Modesto Orozco from Barcelona University, where her research focused on nucleosome positioning in yeast.

For her postdoctoral training, Dr Deniz joined Dr Miguel Branco’s group at Queen Mary University of London to investigate the epigenetic regulation of transposons in early development and cancer.

Dr Deniz joins us from Imperial College London where she has been working as an independent Research Fellow since 2021. We spoke to Dr Deniz to find out more about her group’s research plans at the BCI.

What are the aims of your research here at the BCI?

Our research aims to understand the role of transposons within the genome, and how their dysregulation contributes to the development of blood cancers. Transposons are repeated DNA sequences that can jump from one part of the genome to another, and they comprise about 50% of our genome. They have evolved regulatory regions to exploit the host cellular machinery in order to promote their own transcription and replication.

Most transposons present in the human genome are immobile and inactive. However, the epigenetic changes (changes in gene expression that do not involve a change in the DNA sequence) that occur in cancer cells when they become cancerous can reactivate transposons. Once reactivated, transposons can influence gene expression within the cancer cell.

Research has shown transposons to have diverse roles in cancer. In some cases, they can promote cancer by giving cells a growth advantage; in other cases, they can work against cancer by regulating the expression of genes that suppress cancer growth, or by triggering an immune response against the cancer cell.

Using integrative approaches and combining functional and computational genomics, we want to gain a comprehensive understanding of the impact of the diverse roles of transposons within the cancer genome so that we can identify ways to manipulate them to kill cancer cells. In particular, our research focuses on a blood cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia.

What sparked your interest in cancer research?

Even before my research career started, I had an interest in cancer. When I was 13, I heard on the news that they had opened a new department for molecular biology and genetics in one of Turkey’s top universities. A short video showing the research they were conducting on cancer really impressed me and inspired me to be part of it, particularly how work in the lab could impact cancer patients. After graduating from that same department, I completed my MSc in two different labs in the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) in Heidelberg studying breast cancer. During this time, I became specifically interested in cancer epigenetics.

During my postdoc at Queen Mary, I established my own research niche in cancer biology by bringing a new angle to cancer research. Exploring the repetitive part of our genome in cancer really excites me and importantly, has translational applications; taking our findings from the laboratory to the patient.

What attracted you to BCI, Queen Mary University of London?

BCI has a remarkable and stimulating research community. I was very impressed by the research conducted here, by both basic researchers and clinical scientists. There are many ambitious research groups that are very collaborative, working across different aspects of cancer. I can see that interacting with these different groups will enrich my research and help me to think in new ways.

I gave an invited talk at BCI earlier this year and the feedback and questions I received following my talk were great – this made me realise that my research would be a good fit for the research community here. The academics I have met so far have been very helpful, welcoming and supportive so it already feels like I am part of the big BCI family.

There is also a large group of early career researchers at BCI and great support for researchers at this stage of their career, which is very important for me. We can share experiences, challenges and problems encountered as new group leaders, and we can learn from each other. I already have great mentors to guide me through my transition to develop my research program.

How have you found your first few weeks?

Since starting in November, I have been busy with various training, courses, recruitment processes and learning the University’s IT systems. Overall, it has all been very enjoyable - I have met many enthusiastic scientists to talk about research with. I have already been to a variety of research seminars, which is very nourishing. It has been busy and challenging but I am feeling very positive about my time here already.  I need to add that I am looking forward to settling in completely and returning back to the bench.

What do you hope the next 5 years will bring for your research?

I hope that within the next 5 years our research will contribute to our understanding of how transposons impact genome function in cancer. This is important to provide novel insights into an aspect of cancer biology that has not been explored very much before, particularly in blood cancers.

If we can identify promising candidates in our model systems, I hope that our research hypotheses and findings can also be applicable to other cancer types and lead to collaborations with other research groups at the BCI.

In the longer term, I want to focus on how we can translate our research findings to improve patient outcomes. Within 5 years, I hope that we will be a few steps closer to developing transposon-based therapeutic strategies to treat cancer.

What expertise can you offer colleagues?

I have extensive expertise in epigenetics and transposon biology. My lab is one of the few that can identify manipulated transposons. As epigenetic dysregulations and therefore transposon activation are common in other cancer types, if any researchers at the BCI are interested in exploring this part of the genome, I am happy to help and offer some discussion on this area of research.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love running and swimming, and in the past year have been taking part in swimming and running races to combine both passions. I am currently training for my first marathon in Barcelona and am very excited about this!

I also enjoy live music, practicing yoga and doing fun things with my 4-year-old daughter.

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