How studying an ‘immortal’ animal may aid future cancer research

22 Apr 2020

Helen Horkan. Image: Paul Jones Photography Cardiff

Helen Horkan is a doctoral candidate at NUI Galway who is trying to understand how an ‘immortal’ sea creature is so resilient to damage.

Helen Horkan obtained her BSc in medical genetics from the University of Huddersfield, which included a year-long research placement with Prof Michael Ginger. Under his supervision, she undertook research into the metabolic pathways of choanoflagellates and other basal animals. After developing an interest in computational biology and bioinformatics, Horkan taught herself how to code in R and command line.

After completing her undergraduate studies, she moved to Galway to begin a PhD with SFI’s Centre for Research Training in genomic data science at NUI Galway. Horkan is one of 10 finalists in this year’s FameLab Ireland competition, organised by British Council Ireland and funded by SFI. The final can be viewed on 28 April at 6pm on the British Council Facebook page.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Since primary school I have always been interested in how things work. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to be a ‘scientist’, not that I really knew what that meant. I just knew I wanted to do something I enjoyed all the time.

I come from a relatively low socioeconomic background and science certainly wasn’t something that was pushed to us or even seen as achievable, especially as a woman. But I continued to be interested and researched all of the routes I could take to becoming a scientist.

There was one teacher that made it feel like it could be a reality for me, my year-nine physics teacher, Miss Byrne. I saw that she had real passion for science and was incredibly intelligent. Her passion for the field made me believe it was an option for me.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My PhD research looks at DNA damage response in an ‘immortal’ animal called hydractinia. This research uses a combination of wet lab and computational techniques, with an aim to understand the mechanisms used in hydractinia and what makes them so resilient to damage.

My research is highly collaborative. I have two principal investigators (PIs), one in the area of DNA damage response – Prof Noel Lowndes – and one who looks at all elements of evolutionary development in hydractinian, Prof Uri Frank.

I think my project began as an area of intrigue for both PIs. They knew the project would need someone with an interest in both areas, plus computational ability. Then, SFI’s Centre for Research Training programme in genomic data science began, and I gained a place.

SFI offered the project through this scheme, knowing it could yield a researcher with the relevant skillset. I saw the project and instantly fell in love with it as it ticked all of my boxes in terms of my interests and the skills I wanted to develop.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In the current financial climate, there is a heavy focus on making science commercial. Of course money is important and we need it to conduct research, but scientific discoveries ultimately cannot be bought.

A lot of good science happens through sheer curiosity. Our need to understand very basic principles in simple animals is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Having knowledge of how everything around us functions and has developed is vital in taking steps forward to make novel things.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My research could potentially yield information that would be useful to cancer researchers. If it is possible to work out how hydractinia can repair their DNA so well, it could possibly be applied to humans with DNA damage disorders such as cancer.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

A big challenge in the field of evolutionary development and data science is funding, as in a lot of fields. It can sometimes be difficult to convey to lay people why this kind of research is important as it can be hard to create a direct link to commercial applications.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think there is a common misconception that coders and programmers are all a very specific type of nerdy guy. I spend a lot of my time coding and I am not a guy. Although I am a bit nerdy so maybe I’m not the best example of bucking the trend.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would love to see a lot more research into our oceans! We spent many years being obsessed with the space race and pumping money into getting off our planet. I think it’s time to find out all of the amazing things lurking in the deep; to get to know our home.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

Updated 4pm, 23 April 2020: This article was updated with information on the FameLab Ireland competition that Horkan is taking part in.