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Women in Science: Controlling the lego of life – A researcher’s fight for the cure for cancer

DNA 300x270 Women in Science: Controlling the lego of life   A researcher’s fight for the cure for cancer

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Maria’s scientific career has been devoted to studying the two major types of genetic changes that are observed in tumors: During her MSc and PhD in New York, she studied single base-pair mutations. She went on to study chromosomal instability as the topic of her USA National Science Foundation Research Fellowship and Marie Curie Fellowship, held at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute. She is now a Principal Scientific Officer in the Chromosome Segregation Lab, where she is investigating the mechanisms that regulate chromosomal stability, with the aim of providing crucial insights into the processes that impact healthy cellular growth and proliferation. Maria took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work and to help promote the role of women in science. www.soapboxscience.org

Maria’s scientific career has been devoted to studying the two major types of genetic changes that are observed in tumors: During her MSc and PhD in New York, she studied single base-pair mutations. She went on to study chromosomal instability as the topic of her USA National Science Foundation Research Fellowship and Marie Curie Fellowship, held at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute. She is now a Principal Scientific Officer in the Chromosome Segregation Lab, where she is investigating the mechanisms that regulate chromosomal stability, with the aim of providing crucial insights into the processes that impact healthy cellular growth and proliferation. Maria took part in Soapbox Science 2013, on 5th July where she stood on a soapbox on London’s Southbank and spoke to the public about her work and to helppromote the role of women in science. www.soapboxscience.org

My grandmother. Her sister. My aunt. My godfather. My elementary school classmate. My high school science teacher. My sister’s father-in-law. My husband’s aunt and great-aunt. My friend’s wife. Another friend’s partner… And the list goes on… I think of all the people I have known who have had cancer, and so perhaps it’s not so surprising that this is the area of research that I have chosen to pursue.

Cells are the building blocks of life, the Lego pieces that make up all living organisms, and cancer is a disease of the cells. We have about 100 trillion cells in our bodies, and each cell contains DNA, the genetic material that carries all of the instructions for cell growth and proliferation. As we grow or heal or replace old cells, our cells divide, with each mother cell giving rise to two daughter cells. Cell division is a well-orchestrated process, with many stop and go signals that regulate it. Importantly, when cells divide, genetic information must be accurately copied and then equally divided between the two new daughter cells. This ensures that both cells carry the full set of correct instructions.

We have 26 letters with which to construct words, which in turn are organized into phrases and sentences that we use to convey messages. DNA has four bases – A, T, G, and C – but like our alphabet, minor modifications can lead to big changes in meaning. Therefore, our cells are equipped with repair mechanisms to ensure that our genetic information is correct. These act like a ‘spell check’ program, finding mistakes and quickly fixing them, so that the cell’s set of DNA instructions remain accurate.

During my MS and PhD studies at New York University, I studied single base pair mutations, and DNA base excision repair, the mechanism by which these errors are corrected. Thus, most of the time, DNA damage is rapidly repaired. But, if damage to DNA goes unrepaired, this can sometimes lead to the development of cancer. The cell’s instructions are altered, the message for healthy growth is changed, and cells grow in an uncontrolled manner. This is a hallmark of cancer.

DNA is packaged into larger pieces called chromosomes. We humans have 46 chromosomes in most of our cells (excluding egg and sperm cells). If the DNA bases are like letters in our alphabet, and all of the genetic material is the entire instruction manual, then chromosomes would be large chapters in that book.

When cells divide, the two identical copies of the chromosomes (sister chromatids) must be equally divided between the new daughter cells, so that they each inherit complete instructions. This is known as chromosome segregation, which is the topic of my postdoctoral work at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute.

If the sister chromatids are not equally divided between the two new cells, then the daughter cells inherit an incorrect set of instructions. To avoid such mistakes, a ring-like protein complex called ‘cohesin’ holds the sister chromatids together until they are properly aligned and are ready for division between the daughter cells. Indeed, aneuploidy, the abnormal loss or gain of chromosomes, is a key feature of many tumours.

Thus, tumours arise as a consequence of genetic changes in cells that allow uncontrolled growth and proliferation, and two major types of genetic changes observed in tumours are single base pair mutations and chromosomal instability. As a Principal Scientific Officer in the Chromosome Segregation Lab, I continue to investigate the mechanisms that regulate chromosomal stability, with the aim of providing crucial insights into the processes that impact healthy cellular growth and proliferation. I am currently using budding yeast as a model, since a process as fundamental as chromosome stability follows similar rules in yeast cells as in humans.

Cancer is a disease of the cells, but it is also a disease of communities. At one point in our lives or another, we will know someone who has battled cancer. As a scientist, I fight this disease and its devastating effects in the lab. There has been much progress. In fact this year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the structure of DNA as a double-helix. But there is work to do still. And so, for all of the every day heroes out there, please know that you and your families are not alone. My colleagues and I stand with you, united against cancer, and today, every day, we are fighting to give you more tomorrows.

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