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Julia Promisel Cooper, PhD: Uncovering Molecular Mysteries Behind Cancer Formation

Researcher dives deep into chromosomes to better understand their relationship to cancer

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Written by Kristen O'Neill on March 10, 2023
What You Need To Know

This molecular biologist and her team are uncovering how mistakes in chromosome movement and replication drive cancer formation.

Julia Promisel Cooper, PhD, is a scientist and researcher focused on the molecular biology of chromosomes. Specifically, she and her team study telomeres, the structures made from DNA sequences and proteins that form and protect the ends of chromosomes. (Think of telomeres like the caps at the ends of a shoelace, which keep the ends from fraying, sticking to other ends or being degraded.)

Telomeres act as chromosome stabilizers and choreograph their movements, affecting a range of biological processes, including cell proliferation. Fused or entangled telomeres cause inaccuracies in chromosome inheritance. Cooper is exploring why telomere entanglements occur, and how cells can resolve entanglements. Telomeres also have special roles in meiosis, the specialized cell divisions that produce sperm and eggs, which are being uncovered by Cooper’s lab. Remarkably, some cancer cells turn on genes that normally are restricted to sperm and egg production, so the work Cooper’s team is doing to better understand meiosis is also illuminating cancer mechanisms.

The innovative basic science taking place in Cooper’s lab, and in laboratories across the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, underpins the discovery and development of treatments for diseases from cancer to infertility.    

We toured Cooper’s lab to learn more about her and what propels her work.

What drives you?

Chromosome biology is endlessly enthralling. Every time a cell divides, numerous steps are in place to ensure that accurate copies of our genetic information are inherited by each new cell. This involves the painstaking copying of each chromosome, and an elaborate choreography to ensure that the new copies move evenly into each new cell. Mistakes in copying a chromosome, or the movement of a chromosome to the wrong location, drive cancer formation. Therefore, we need to understand exactly how this works in healthy cells, what can go wrong, and whether mistakes can be tolerated by cells. It is a privilege to be a participant in uncovering these mysterious processes.

How does being part of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus ecosystem help you further your work and your professional goals?

Our campus ecosystem is a highly interactive one in which people share perspectives and ideas. I learn from my colleagues every day and feel like my horizons are broadened by these interactions.

When I’m not at work, I enjoy…

I enjoy time with family and friends, cooking/eating, hiking in mountains and canyons, art and theatre. These bring joy and also free the mind to think ‘outside the box’. It’s often after a hike that the solution to a scientific puzzle becomes clear.

Learn more about the innovators on our campus

Topics: Faculty