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The p53 gene is one of the most important genes in cancer biology. Having a faulty p53 gene can increase a person’s chance of developing cancer, and make some cancers more aggressive. In the 1980s we gave funding to Dr Niels Bentzen Atkin, to support his pioneering research into tumour cell genetics. His work helped to establish exactly why a faulty p53 gene can be so dangerous.

Worldwide Cancer Research funded Dr Atkin at Mount Vernon Hospital in London, England, for over 10 years back in the 1980s and 1990s. He was interested in a particular area of DNA, called chromosome 17, which is frequently lost in cells that become cancerous. Chromosome 17 is special because it covers the area of DNA which contains the p53 gene.

Scientists had always thought p53 was an ‘oncogene’, a gene that has the potential to cause cancer by allowing cells to grow abnormally. However Dr Atkin’s research helped to turn this thinking around. His findings indicated that p53 normally works as a ‘tumour suppressor’, acting as a brake on cancer growth. It is when p53 becomes faulty or inactive, that cancer can develop. His work helped us to understand in detail how and why the p53 gene is involved in cancer. It contributed to the fundamental science which paved the way for other researchers to develop diagnostic tests for p53 mutations.

p53 genetic tests are now available for families with a specific history of certain types of cancer. By discovering whether families carry risky mutations, doctors can diagnose cancers earlier and offer better treatment choices, and more importantly, families can better plan for the future.

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