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Cancer research goes ‘back to basics’

A scientist at the University of St Andrews has been awarded part of a £4.6m funding package by a leading cancer research charity to go ‘back to basics’ in finding a cure for the disease.

Dr Malcolm White of the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences has been awarded a three-year funding package to investigate the special DNA repair systems that all cells have to guard against damage to genes that can make them cancerous.

The funding, from the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR), will allow Dr White to study how the repair system works in microscopic organisms, similar to bacteria, to better understand how the repair system works in human cells to prevent cancer.

He said: “The genetic material DNA is an information store – a DIY manual used by all living things to make copies of themselves. DNA is a chemical and as such is a dynamic entity capable of continual change. One change is the daily “wear and tear” resulting from damage by environmental factors such as sunlight or by chemical waste products produced inside cells. This damage can potentially change the DNA code, resulting in mutations that are often deleterious – and can eventually lead to cancer.

“Because of this, all living things devote considerable resources to the maintenance and repair of their DNA. Tiny protein machines constantly scan the DNA, searching for damage. When damage is detected these sensor proteins recruit other enzymes that repair the DNA. Thus, although DNA damage is a very common event, it is almost always reversed by the repair machinery.”

The AICR is a principal funder of high quality scientific research into the causes and possible cures of cancer – and is unique in that it is the only UK body which funds research into any area of cancer in any country in the world. They have recently called on the Government to go ‘back to basics’ where cancer research is concerned to reduce the time it takes to find cancer cures. This year, the £4.6 million cancer research funding package has been split among 42 cancer scientists from around the world.

Dr White was awarded £60,000 AICR funding after a team of 15 distinguished international scientists decided that the research being undertaken by Dr White as of ‘exceptional quality’, which has succeeded in the face of fierce competition from the international scientific community.

The microscopic organisms Dr White is studying are archaea – a group of microbes often found in extreme environments such as volcanic pools and polar ice. Archaea are also being studied by NASA as they represent the type of life most likely to be found elsewhere in the solar system. In April last year, Dr White discovered that archaea, despite only having 3000 genes to our 30000 genes, have unexpected similarities to humans. Because the repair machinery in archaea is much simpler than that of humans, it is easier to study and understand.

The AICR is specifically funding research in Dr White’s laboratory on archaeal XP (Xeroderma Pigmentosum) proteins – proteins conserved in archaea and found in all organisms with a nucleus, from yeast to humans.

Suffers from the inherited condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) lack proteins essential for the repair of damage caused by the UV radiation, leading to severe symptoms that include extreme sensitivity to sunlight, multiple tumours and early death. The XP proteins form a complex multicomponent machine that repairs UV-induced damage, with each part specialised for one job. To understand how this machine works, Dr White’s team need first to take it apart and study all the components individually, then put them back together to work out how they interact with one another.

“This basic research will help us understand the fundamental principles of the machinery using a simple model system. As the major components are conserved, our findings will have direct relevance for the human repair system.”

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

DR WHITE IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW TODAY ON 01334 463432 OR EMAIL mfw2@st-andrews.ac.uk

PICTURE EDITORS:

EMAILABLE PICS OF BOILING VOLCANIC POOLS, TYPICAL CONDITIONS FOR GROWTH OF ARCHEA, ARE AVAILABLE FROM GAYLE COOK – CONTACTS BELOW.

For further information on the AICR please contact Gemma Bell or Lindsay Linton at Citigate SMARTS on 0131 555 0425.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: M White AICR pr 171103 View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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