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Seeing Black and White Represents Research Progress for Gazzaniga Award Recipient

Jessica Flesher
Gazzaniga Award Recipient Jessica Flesher is investigating melanocytes and identifying nuanced biological differences that may affect susceptibility to skin cancer.

 Where some see black and white, Jessica Flesher sees nuanced biological differences that may affect susceptibility to skin cancer.

Flesher is investigating melanocytes—cells that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin, hair and eyes color. These melanocytes also protect the skin from damage that can lead to melanoma.

Flesher’s work focuses on two of the nine isoforms of melanocyte inducing transcription factor (MITF), variants of melanocyte proteins that can affect skin coloring or pigmentation. Using CRISPR gene-editing technology, she has removed, or knocked out the isoforms. While the first isoform showed little effect on its knock-out mouse, the skin and hair of the second mouse turned from black to white.  The sixth-year doctoral student has written a paper on her findings and is awaiting response from a peer-reviewed publication.

“One of the interesting things is that an oncogenic mutation in MITF can lead to familial melanoma and kidney cancer,” says Flesher. “Too much or too little can be bad, as it controls the molecular development of melanocytes. It may help explain why melanoma is more metastatic than other forms of cancer.”

The innovative research also contributed to her recognition as the 2018 Gazzaniga Family Medical Research Award recipient. The award, established with support from retired UCI cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Alan Gazzaniga, honors a graduate student with outstanding academic credentials and a promising biomedical study underway.

As a child camping on the Oregon coast, the Idaho native visited the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. There, she was introduced to Keiko, the orca who gained fame in the 1993 movie Free Willy. Nearby, at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, she met an octopus that was fond of crawling out of its tank to greet visitors.

And on that trip, she says, she fell in love with marine biology.

Flesher enrolled in Oregon State University (OSU) as a marine biology major. She spent a quarter working at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. She also explored coral bleaching in sea anemones in the lab of OSU coral cell biologist, Virginia Weis. 

“I realized that it wasn’t marine ecology that interested me, but what was going on inside the cells,” she says. “I still love marine ecology. But, figuring out what is going on in cells is what’s exciting.”

Today, Flesher is pursuing a doctorate in biological chemistry at UCI School of Medicine. Her research is based in the lab of Anand Ganesan, MD, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Dermatology and Biological Chemistry.  

“Jessica did her first rotation in my laboratory in the Fall of 2014. Early on I realized how adept she was at reading and analyzing the literature, as well as designing her own experiments.   Since joining the laboratory, she has continued to excel at the bench,” says Dr. Ganesan.

“One particularly unique thing about Jessica is that she is not afraid to learn new techniques and apply them to her own work. While in my laboratory, she has taught herself eye anatomy, kidney anatomy, as well as bioinformatics. She has applied these tools to her most recent paper, and this enterprising spirit only indicates how bright a future she has as a scientist.”

Jessica’s passion for research is matched by the joy she experiences from sharing science with others.

Flesher is captain of the Oncoslayers, the Cancer Research Institute and School of Medicine Graduate Studies Division team for the UCI Anti-Cancer Challenge, an annual ride/run/walk to raise funds for cancer research at the UCI Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Talking with participants whose lives have been affected by cancer, helps her make the connection between her research and the lives it can change.

She also served as coordinator of the UCI Cancer Research Institute Youth Science Fellows program for high school students for several years. The six-week summer program engages students in research projects that allow them to experience bench work, many for the first time.

“You see students come into the program, people who have never had an opportunity to conduct research, who struggle to say the words,” says Flesher. “After six weeks, they’ve become experts in their projects. It’s awe-inspiring.”