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Studying a rare tumour called oncocytomas to understand how the powerplant inside a cancer cell mutates

Dr Giuseppe Gasparre is investigating how cellular powerhouses can become mutated, thereby stopping the cells from growing and forcing them into a sleep like state.

Mitochondria, the cellular power plants, play a pivotal role in supplying the energy and molecular components required by cells and cancer cells.  Mitochondria possess their own DNA which, when it is mutated, can enable cancer cells to survive and divide very rapidly.  Conversely, severe mutations, that irreversibly damage mitochondrial DNA, may stop the cells growing completely and enter a sleep like state.

Dr Gasparre told us “In some families, the accumulation of mitochondrial DNA mutations in tumors is a recurrent event, happening in parents, children and grandchildren etc.  These mutations lead to so-called ‘oncocytic tumors’, which are generally benign (non-cancerous) but can be precancerous or indeed cancerous.”

He continued “It is plausible to think that this inherited phenomenon of mitochondrial DNA mutation accumulation is dependent on the rest of the DNA inside the cell, present in the cell nucleus.  Using samples taken from families that have oncocytic tumours, we are planning to sequence the DNA of the key gene candidates predicted to be involved in the accumulation of mitochondrial mutations.

Whether the cells stop growing due to the sheer volume of mitochondrial mutations or whether the damage to these power houses stops the cells metabolising and growing correctly, or indeed if both are true, will be explored.”  He concluded “If we understand how these oncocytic tumour cells enter the slow growing sleep-like state it could be exploited with the use of drugs to make other, more dangerous cancer cells do the same.”