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Deciphering why cancer occurs more often in some organs than others

  • Researcher: Dr Ruben van Boxtel
  • Institution: Prinses Maxima Centrum, Bilthoven, The Netherland
  • Award Amount: £242,339 for 3 years from 1st January 2016
  • Cancer Type: General Cancer Research
Deciphering why cancer occurs more often in some organs than others
Dr Ruben van Boxtel is deciphering DNA changes in different parts of the body to explain why cancer arises in some places more often than others.

Cancer incidence varies enormously among organs in the human body, for example it is rare in the small intestine and liver, more common in the pancreas and kidney, and very common in the breast, prostate and lung. It has long been known that specific changes in the DNA sequence of cells may cause cancer but it is unclear what determines this variability in different organs.

It is possible that the variation in cancer incidence in the organs may result from different organ-specific processes. These processes can be identified by studying characteristic ‘footprints’ they leave behind in the DNA sequence.

Dr van Boxtel told us “I am studying these ‘footprints’ in the DNA of adult stem cells, specialized cells that can change into a range of different cell types. DNA changes in adult stem cells have the largest impact on human health. Because they allow organs to self-renew and repair upon injury, so if the stem cells are altered, so are all the cells that they give rise to. I have gathered adult stem cells from post-mortem tissue samples obtained from people who donated their bodies to science. The changes present in the DNA will be determined by analyzing their complete DNA sequences and characteristic organ-specific footprints will be determined. Finally, computational analyses will help identify the processes responsible for generating DNA changes. By comparing the footprints of adult stem cells from different organs, I will be able to identify organ-specific cancer-initiating processes.

This research will increase our understanding of processes that cause cancer via DNA changes and how these differ between organs. Ultimately, this research may benefit cancer prevention. My work would not be possible without the generosity of people who leave their bodies to scientific research so I am very grateful to them and their families.

"I am currently trying to establish an independent research group and this grant will help me to reach that goal. With my career I want to figure out if and how the processes that are responsible for cancer-causing DNA changes can be stopped before the onset of disease. This grant will help me to start this research."
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