Student Spotlight: Graduate Student Siennah Miller uses biochemistry background to study transporter proteins

Since it opened in 1947, the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy has been a launchpad for groundbreaking ideas. Students at the College come from a variety of disciplines, each bringing their own unique interests to the table. Siennah Miller, a PhD student in the Pharmacology and Toxicology degree track, is using her biochemistry background to study transporter proteins, which help drugs to cross physiological barriers.

"My research focuses on two specific transporters related to the blood-testis barrier," Miller explained. "These transporters move nucleosides, a key component of DNA and RNA, into and out of cells. Drugs that are similar to nucleosides, called nucleoside analogs, can use these transporters."

Chemotherapy and antiviral drugs are just some examples of nucleoside analogs. In order to improve the design of such compounds, it is essential to first understand their structural characteristics and how they rely on transporters. To do this, Miller is helping to develop machine learning models that can predict which nucleoside analogs use these transporters. As the project progresses, she and the rest of her team hope to create "templates" of the identified compounds, which will prove useful in the development of new drugs that can cross the blood-testis barrier.

"Eventually, we plan to share our findings and make the data publicly available in the form of mobile and online applications," Miller said. "This will help pharmaceutical companies in designing new medications, and doctors in selecting the best treatment options for patients."

This research is being done in collaboration with the UArizona Department of Physiology, Gilead Sciences, and Collaborations Pharmaceuticals. Since the beginning, the project has changed course slightly. Originally, the team was interested in using testicular tissue cells, but this proved infeasible. However, since the project focuses on two specific transporters, they decided to study other cell lines, which allowed them to achieve the same goal. As results arrive, the compounds of greatest interest will be investigated in animal models to show "proof of concept," meaning that the team is able to predict what can enter the male genital tract.

Miller expressed the importance of this research, noting its potential to help develop drugs more efficiently by eliminating the time and resources necessary to test compounds that are unable to cross the barrier. If successful, the project could have a direct impact on patient outcomes. On a professional level, the project stood out to her for its therapeutic significance. "It has provided me with the opportunity to learn a variety of lab techniques and begin to learn a bit about computer modeling," she said.

Currently, Miller is pursuing this research for her dissertation.