Aime Levesque, PhD
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Aime Levesque, PhD

Aime Levesque, PhD

Associate Professor of Biology
Department Co-Chair

Starting Small to go BIG: Protecting DNA to Stop Cancer

Associate Professor Aime Levesque is focusing on small details in order to solve a big problem: cancer. After earning her PhD from Dartmouth College, Levesque conducted postdoctoral research at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire before joining the University of Hartford in 2006. In 2009 she was awarded a Young Investigator’s Grant from the Breast Cancer Alliance. This year she has become co-chair of the Department of Biology.

Despite her new role, involving students in her research is still a big part of her activity. Working at UHart, Levesque has been able to shed light on some of the cellular processes that can cause cancerous tumors to grow or the processes that inhibit growth. Cancer is characterized by an accumulation of mutations in DNA due to unregulated cell proliferation. To guard against the threat of DNA damage, cells use cell cycle checkpoints. Certain types of damage can trigger a pause in cell cycles to allow time for the cell to repair itself. If cells successfully repair the damage, they recover and restart the cycle. If the damage is irreparable, cells activate cell death pathways that kill the cell.

“I try to provide as many research opportunities to students as I can,” Levesque explains. “That’s an important part of my role as a professor.”

Some people’s inherited predisposition to breast cancer is due to mutations in key genes that are normally involved in protecting cells from DNA damage. A protein named p53 normally acts as a tumor suppressor, and plays a major role in both cell cycle arrest and cell death in response to DNA damage. In fact, in more than 50 percent of human tumors, the p53 is defective. Levesque is working to increase understanding of how p53 protects normal cells from DNA damage.

Rebecca Pappalardo ’17 is currently assisting Aime Levesque in the next step in her breast cancer research.

Levesque actively involves student researchers in her work. This past spring, at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans, Levesque presented findings from research that was conducted with the assistance of Pawan Puli ’16, a recent graduate of the MS in Neuroscience program. This research showed some tumors that fail to form functional groups of p53 molecules respond to therapy involving a DNA damaging agent and a checkpoint inhibitor. She is now working with Rebecca Pappalardo, recipient of the 2015-16 Barbara Cooke Endowed Scholarship, on investigating why the p53 proteins in these cell lines fail to form functional groups.