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Do tiny worms hold the answer?

  • Researcher: Professor Sander van den Heuvel
  • Institution: Utrecht University, Netherlands
  • Award Amount: £199,459 for 3 years from November 2014
  • Cancer Type: General Cancer Research
Do tiny worms hold the answer?
Working in the Netherlands, Professor van den Heuvel is using worms just 1mm long to study a relatively unknown group of genes called ‘SWI/SNF genes’, and find out how their damage leads to cancer. SWI/SNF genes normally help to stop cell division once a cell has specialised to become, for instance, a muscle cell, blood cell, or neuron. However damage to SWI/SNF genes may mean that the cell does not stop dividing, and cancer can develop. SWI/SNF damage has already been linked to many different types of cancer. Normally found in the soil, C.elegans worms are ideally suited for studying how cell division and cell specialisation are connected. Scientists already know in detail exactly how their cells divide and grow, and in earlier studies Professor van den Heuvel has already shown that worm cells behave very similarly to human cells during these processes. He can now use this knowledge to test and carefully determine the exact function of SWI/SNF genes in cell division and specialisation. In addition, Professor van den Heuvel wants to identify ways to stop potentially cancerous cells dividing when SWI/SNF genes fail. He can then test if this approach might also work in human cancer cells that have lost SWI/SNF gene activity.
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