Genetic cancer research awarded funding

Monday 9 July 2001

Scottish researchers are to launch a new study which aims to explain why some individuals are more susceptible to cancer than others.

Scientists based at the University of St Andrews have won funding of almost £400,000 to establish why the development of certain cancers may be due considerably more to genetics than previously thought.

Backed by the Cancer Research Campaign, a team of chromosomal specialists at St Andrews are currently investigating why some cancers show an unusually high level of breakage in chromosomes, in an effort to establish how genetic sensitivity to radiation is linked to genetic susceptibility to cancer.

They are interested in the changes, or ‘inversions’, which take place in chromosomes when subjected to forms of radiation such as x-rays. Their work explores the theory that radiation- sensitivity levels are genetically- determined, and that everyone has different levels of sensitivity, much the same as different levels of sensitivity to the sun’s rays.

The scientist heading up the biological side of the study, Dr Peter Bryant of the University’s School of Biology, said:

“These studies are important because through them an understanding of the underlying mechanism of chromosome breakage will help to throw light on the genes involved in making individuals more susceptible to cancer.”

In the particular case of breast cancer, recent research conducted by the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester and by the St Andrews Cancer Biology group in collaboration with Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital, has found that between thirty and forty percent of cases in this country have shown an abnormal level of chromosome breakage or re- arrangements. Such research suggests the possibility that a number of genes control levels of susceptibility to cancer, in the same way they control levels of radiation-sensitivity.

The Cancer Research Campaign have awarded the study funding of over £40,000 to enable the team to investigate how early DNA damage can open the gate to rearrangements of whole sections of DNA (chromosomes) which have the potential to cause cancer.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Science Information at The Cancer Research Campaign said:

“We know that DNA damage underpins the development of all cancers but we don’t yet know the precise mechanisms. Finding out more about this process may help us to pinpoint who is at greatest risk and to target screening for early detection of cancer and prevention to those who are most vulnerable.”

In recent months, the research conducted by the School of Biology at St Andrews in conjunction with their colleagues in Physics, has also been awarded two 2 year grants from the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) for almost £300,000, and the MRC (Medical Research Council) Hopping Award, a one year grant for £50,000.

Although the St Andrews team have been studying breast cancer cases in particular, like-minded scientists in Greece and Manchester have looked at other forms of cancer, such as bowel, cervix, prostate, lung and skin cancer.

Dr Bryant and his colleagues are also currently collaborating with New Zealand’s Massey University in an investigation into genetic damage suffered by New Zealand war veterans subjected to nuclear testing in the 1950’s.

New Zealand scientists have also found that there is a strong correlation between radiation exposure, genetic damage and various cancers, especially blood and bone cancer.

The University of St Andrews is recognised as one of the world’s leading institutions on the effects of radiation damage to genetic material. The Biology team are developing the use of advanced techniques for manipulating and micro-dissecting DNA using laser technology developed by Dr Kishan Dholakia and his team in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

The Physics team will help to develop probes using laser technology, which will help perform more accurate manipulations of chromosomes as an alternative to traditional cruder scraping methods, which can lead to damaged DNA samples.

The team’s research is centred around a model developed by Dr Bryant, which explains chromosome re-arrangements leading to breakage when the body’s cells are subjected to radiation.

Future research will be focussed on understanding the genetics of this process and the identification of low-penetrance genes (weaker than the more dominant genes) which are thought to control radiation sensitivity and possibly also susceptibility to cancer.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected]


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