Natasha J. Caplen, Ph.D.


Genetics Branch


Building 37, Room 6128A
Bethesda, MD 20892


Research Topics

Technological advances have revolutionized the genome-scale profiling of DNA copy number and sequence, DNA and chromatin modification, and gene expression and have substantially enhanced our understanding of the molecular changes that underlie many cancers. However, functionalizing these findings in a systematic manner remains a challenge. To address this challenge I, and others, developed experimental strategies for the discovery and elucidation of gene function by exploiting the RNA interference (RNAi) gene silencing mechanism to generate loss-of-function (LOF) phenotypes. My research interests build on my experience in the nucleic acid delivery/gene therapy research field, my work on the RNAi mechanism (including studies establishing the existence of RNAi in mammalian cells), and my independent and collaborative endeavors developing RNAi based analysis and screening approaches for the study of gene function.

My laboratory uses functional genetic approaches induced by RNAi and other DNA or RNA-based technologies to interrogate specific aspects of the genetic, transcriptional, and cell-signaling alterations observed in cancer cells. Current research is focused on the development of new treatment strategies for cancers driven by fusion oncoproteins. Fusion or chimeric oncoproteins represent a unique vulnerability as they are only expressed within tumor cells. However, little is known about how tumor cells co-opt cellular processes to express, from rearranged DNA, an in-frame fusion transcript encoding a chimeric functional protein and so we are using functional genetic approaches to identify genes required for the expression or activity of fusion oncoproteins. This work will further our understanding of how the expression of this important class of cancer oncogenes is regulated and how they may be optimally targeted.


Dr. Caplen was awarded her Ph.D. from the University of London (Kings College Hospital Medical School) for studies on the genetics of type I diabetes and its complications. Dr. Caplen's Postdoctoral training began at St Mary's Hospital Medical School, Imperial College, where she focused on the development of gene therapy approaches for cystic fibrosis (CF) during which she was involved in some of the first pre-clinical and clinical studies of cationic lipid mediated gene therapy for CF. In 1996, Dr. Caplen came to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at NIH as a Visiting Fellow, where she initially conducted studies investigating hybrid viral vector systems for the delivery of genes. It was while at NHGRI that Dr. Caplen developed a research interest in the newly identified gene silencing mechanism, RNA interference (RNAi) leading to her studies that help establish the presence of RNAi in mammalian cells. Dr. Caplen joined CCR, NCI in 2004 as a Senior Scientist, where she pioneered approaches for exploiting RNAi to investigate cancer biology and treatment and helped establish a trans-NIH facility for genome-wide RNAi screening. Dr. Caplen was appointed a Tenure-Track Investigator in CCR’s Genetics Branch in January 2016. Her current research focuses on using functional genetic methods to interrogate specific aspects of the genetic, transcriptional, and signaling alterations observed in cancers driven by fusion oncogenes.

Selected Publications

  1. Grohar PJ, Kim S, Rangel Rivera GO, Sen N, Haddock S, Harlow ML, Maloney NK, Zhu J, O'Neill M, Jones TL, Huppi K, Grandin M, Gehlhaus K, Klumpp-Thomas CA, Buehler E, Helman LJ, Martin SE, Caplen NJ. Functional Genomic Screening Reveals Splicing of the EWS-FLI1 Fusion Transcript as a Vulnerability in Ewing Sarcoma. Cell Rep. 2016;14(3):598-610.
  2. Garimella SV, Gehlhaus K, Dine JL, Pitt JJ, Grandin M, Chakka S, Nau MM, Caplen NJ, Lipkowitz S. Identification of novel molecular regulators of tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL)-induced apoptosis in breast cancer cells by RNAi screening. Breast Cancer Res. 2014;16(2):R41.
  3. Ou O, Huppi K, Chakka S, Gehlhaus K, Dubois W, Patel J, Chen J, Mackiewicz M, Jones TL, Pitt JJ, Martin SE, Goldsmith P, Simmons JK, Mock BA, Caplen NJ. Loss-of-function RNAi screens in breast cancer cells identify AURKB, PLK1, PIK3R1, MAPK12, PRKD2, and PTK6 as sensitizing targets of rapamycin activity. Cancer Lett. 2014;354(2):336-47.
  4. Mackiewicz M, Huppi K, Pitt JJ, Dorsey TH, Ambs S, Caplen NJ. Identification of the receptor tyrosine kinase AXL in breast cancer as a target for the human miR-34a microRNA. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2011;130(2):663-79.
  5. Martin SE, Wu ZH, Gehlhaus K, Jones TL, Zhang YW, Guha R, Miyamoto S, Pommier Y, Caplen NJ. RNAi screening identifies TAK1 as a potential target for the enhanced efficacy of topoisomerase inhibitors. Curr Cancer Drug Targets. 2011;11(8):976-86.

Related Scientific Focus Areas

This page was last updated on Tuesday, April 30, 2024