Scientist from EU-supported institute makes important cancer gene discovery
A young scientist from a Czech research institute established in 2011 with European Union funding with the aim of becoming a leading European centre of science has made an important genetic discovery which could lead to more effective treatment for some forms of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
Research carried out by Michal Zimmermann, a postgraduate student of Dr. Ctirad Hofr from the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC), has revealed that the loss of the gene Rif1, or a mutation of it which makes it inactive, is able to make cancer cells more resistant to standard treatment for these two cancers by halting and reversing the effects of chemotherapy.
A new form of chemotherapy that is currently in development for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer works by intentionally breaking both strands of the DNA helix, causing the cells to die and the tumours to shrink because these types of cancers lack the ability to repair the DNA breaks. Zimmermann’s research, published in January 2013 in the journal Science, shows that the inactivated Rif1 gene can enable the cells in hereditary breast and ovary cancers to repair the broken DNA, thereby nullifying the effects of the chemotherapy. The discovery opens the way to more targeted, individualised treatment for patients with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
“Physicians need genetic information about the tumour of any patient in order to choose an appropriate form of treatment,” says Zimmermann. “They can predict – to some extent – the behaviour of the disease based on the knowledge of which genes are mutated in the particular tumour. We have provided them with an additional element to look for in hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.”
Situated in Brno, Czech Republic, and supported by funding from the EU’s Regional Development Fund, CEITEC is a centre of scientific excellence in the fields of life sciences and advanced materials and technologies.
Zimmermann made his discovery while working as part of his postgraduate studies at the prestigious Rockefeller University in New York in the international team led by Prof. Titia de Lange.
Based on studies of mouse cell cultures, Zimmermann’s results will need to be verified by further research including in vivo tests using mouse cancer models, screening for possible Rif1 mutations in the tumours of human breast and ovarian cancer patients, and further experiments on cells derived from such tumours.
As well as its specific relevance to the treatment of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, Zimmermann’s research may also contribute to the wider fight against cancer. “Although this discovery is not of direct relevance to the treatment of other types of cancer, some form of DNA damage is often involved both in the growth of tumours and also in cancer treatment,” Zimmermann says. “This makes basic research of the DNA damage repair pathways particularly important.”
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