Member Spotlight: Alison Taylor, PhD

April 19, 2020

When Alison Taylor, PhD, arrived at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) in January, she found herself on familiar ground. Raised across the Holland Tunnel in the suburbs of New Jersey, Dr. Taylor spent every Saturday of her senior year in high school on Columbia University’s Morningside campus, enrolled in an honors program for students who excelled in math and science.

“It is great to be here at Columbia and the HICCC. In some ways, this is a return home,” says Dr. Taylor,  member of the Precision Oncology and Systems Biology program at the HICCC and assistant professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Taylor comes to the HICCC from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where she completed post-doctoral work in cancer genetics. Prior to Dana-Farber, she studied under stem cell specialist Dr. Leonard Zon at Harvard and attended MIT as an undergraduate.

As a graduate student, Dr. Taylor developed a zebrafish model of Diamond Blackfan anemia (DBA), a rare disease of red cell deficiency often diagnosed in infants that typically results in physical abnormalities and severe bone marrow conditions. Using this zebrafish model system, Dr. Taylor performed an in vivo chemical screen to identify compounds that could rescue the mutated protein, rps29, in the zebrafish. This work led to the identification of a new therapeutic target for DBA leading to a patent and clinical trial. In addition to the zebrafish model of DBA, Dr. Taylor helped develop a patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) model which helped identify potential therapeutics for DBA.

At Columbia, Dr. Taylor’s lab is focusing on the study of aneuploidy and how these specific sets of chromosome mutations contribute to cancer initiation, progression, and treatment response—work she started as a post-doc. The Taylor lab has already laid the groundwork for new collaborations at Columbia, including with Dr. Fatemeh Momen-Heravi of Columbia Dental College on projects related to the genomics of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, and will soon be working on squamous cancer cell research with the labs of Drs. Hiroshi Nakagawa and Anil Rustgi.

Q: Tell us about your main research focus and what you’re currently working on here at the HICCC.

A: Almost 90% of tumors have an abnormal number of chromosomes, termed aneuploidy. Interestingly, the specific chromosomes or chromosome pieces that are altered differ depending on the type of cancer. My lab studies how these chromosome changes might cause different cancers. We analyze genomic information from patient tumors to identify the patterns of chromosome alteration across cancer types. We also use CRISPR, a natural bacterial immune system, as a tool to engineer cells with the same chromosome changes that occur in patients. With these engineered cells, we can directly test the effects of aneuploidy and identify approaches to target aneuploid cells, which would be useful in the clinic.

Q: How will your work have an impact in the field?

A: Aneuploidy was first identified in cancer cells over 100 years ago, but its role in tumor development has remained unclear. Our research will allow us to answer questions about the effects of aneuploidy in cancer cells; whether aneuploidy contributes to tumor development; and could help us determine an approach to specifically target aneuploid cells and translate this to the clinic.

Q: How did you first get interested in cancer?

A: During my undergraduate studies at MIT I became interested in cancer research while working in a laboratory focused on cell cycle regulation. In my doctoral work, I developed new animal and cellular models of a rare blood disease, and in my postdoc was able to apply these modeling skills to cancer biology. For the past seven years, I have been fascinated by the mystery surrounding the role of large chromosome alterations in cancer. With advances in next generation sequencing and more recently, genome editing, we are poised to address outstanding questions in the field.

Q: What drew you to Columbia and to the HICCC?

A: When meeting faculty at Columbia and the HICCC, I was very impressed by the breadth and excellence of research taking place – both at the level of basic research and clinical research. I was also excited when, in meetings with faculty, we immediately identified synergistic areas of study. In addition, I am eager to recruit graduate students to the lab, and the strength of the PhD program makes Columbia a very appealing place.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?

A: I’m motivated both by an intrinsic interest in the field of aneuploidy research, as well as knowing that the impact of our work could translate to therapeutic improvements for patients in the future. It is so rewarding to have a breakthrough in the lab, whether that includes uncovering a key result or finally getting a new technique to work. And I find science is most enjoyable as a team endeavor, so training others in the lab and establishing collaborations are some of my favorite activities.