Member Spotlight is a monthly series for the ISRHML Trainee Blog designed to highlight the talent of TIGers around the world. Each month, one ISRHML trainee member is selected and featured so we can get to know more about him or her and what he or she is doing within the field of human milk and lactation research. This month, we meet Yarden Golan, a doctoral student who studies the genetic basis of transient neonatal zinc deficiency (TNZD) in infants at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
Following in the footsteps of Nobel laureate Dr. Barry Marshall (note: if you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Marshall, you can read about his history with Helicobacter pylori and subsequent rise to fame here), Yarden Golan is no stranger to self-experimentation. After her son, Carmel, was born in the middle of her graduate research, Yarden began to wonder if she could isolate a specific mRNA pertinent to her doctoral research from human milk. She got the idea from reading articles that suggested that it is possible to isolate mRNA from milk, and since the mRNA of interest to her is otherwise relatively inaccessible (because it is produced in mammary epithelial cells), Yarden used her own milk and applied the techniques she had read about, ultimately successfully isolating the mRNA encoded by the SLC30A2/ZnT2 gene. And so, from this (albeit less invasive Marshall’s self-infection with H. pylori decades earlier) self-experimentation of sorts, a doctoral program was born.
Yarden is a doctoral student in biology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology under the direction of Dr. Yehuda G. Assaraf, who also serves as dean of faculty of biology. After completing her undergraduate degree in nutrition at Tel-Hai College in 2012, Yarden knew she wanted to stay in the area of human nutrition. She read a peer-reviewed article about the detection of a novel gene mutation implicated in infant zinc deficiency, and decided to contact the author. That same year, this contact earned her a spot as a masters student in the laboratory of Dr. Assaraf. Yarden’s early projects in her masters program were characterizing the mutation in the SLC30A2/ZnT2 gene, which causes transient neonatal zinc deficiency (TNZD), as well as characterizing the gene product: the ZnT2 protein, a zinc transporter protein that allows this essential mineral to move from the epithelial mammary cells into human milk. If there is a mutation in the gene, the encoded protein is often misshapen, which results in zinc-deficient milk. Interestingly, women who have mutations in the SLC30A2/ZnT2 gene have no outward signs of illness, nor are they zinc deficient themselves. But consumption of the milk they produce can lead to TNZD in their breastfed infants, causing dermatitis, diarrhea, hair loss, and loss of appetite. Importantly for Yarden’s project, zinc supplementation of these zinc-deficient infants effectively and rapidly resolves the signs and symptoms associated with TNZD. The disease is severe and can be fatal, but the genesis has little to do with the infant. For this reason, Yarden’s research goal was to develop a genetic test for women that could provide an early diagnosis of the mutation. In her project, Yarden demonstrated that this protein functions as homodimer, which is important for ZnT2 function, and shed light on the underlying molecular mechanisms behind TNZD. You can read the publications from Yarden’s work here and here.
Midway through her masters program, Yarden switched directly into a doctoral program in the same laboratory. Because of Yarden’s exploratory work with her own milk and as a part of her doctoral dissertation research, she was able to develop a protocol whereby she could isolate the mRNA encoded by the SLC30A2/ZnT2 gene to determine if a woman had the mutation. This protocol turned out to be extremely useful when an Israeli infant was identified as having severe TNZD. Yarden was able to analyze a sample of milk collected from the infant’s mother, and identified a new variant of the SLC30A2/ZnT2 gene. This variant resulted from impaired DNA splicing, which caused a deletion of nine amino acids from the ZnT2 protein, rendering the protein non-functional. Because of this work, Yarden developed a new genetic test for increased risk of developing TNZD, using human milk samples. This work has been submitted for publication in the Journal of Cellular & Molecular Medicine. This project has now expanded to identification of other zinc transporters which are expressed in mammary epithelial cells during lactation using mRNA extracted from milk. In addition, Yarden is very excited to explore the role of mRNA in human milk in general. She notes, however, that this is a big topic that will take years to explore. As such, she is hopeful that it can be incorporated into a project that is a component of a post-doctoral position.
Yarden believes that the biggest problem to tackle in the field of human milk and lactation research is to fully understand milk composition. This will enable us to make recommendations regarding the content of infant formula or supplements, as an alternative when breastfeeding is not possible. Yarden believes that if we can make alternative infant foods more biologically realistic by incorporating components that are naturally found in human milk (e.g. mRNA), we can improve the health of all infants, especially for those where breastfeeding is not possible or where supplementation of breast milk is necessary.
When she is not in the lab, Yarden spends time with her family and now 2-year-old son. Yarden used to be a competitive cyclist, and while she no longer competes, she still cites cycling as her major hobby. Yarden would like to continue her work and research in the field of human nutrition after the completion of her PhD, hopefully in January 2019. Maybe someday (like Dr. Marshall), we will see Yarden Golan as a Nobel Prize recipient for her groundbreaking work on zinc deficiency in infants.
Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us, Yarden!
We wish Yarden the best of luck completing her PhD, and look forward to more exciting research, especially her pending publication! If you are interested in Yarden’s work, you can read more about her current laboratory and their work here.
If you think you may be able to collaborate with Yarden or would otherwise like to contact her, you can view her LinkedIn here, or email her at: email@example.com.