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Mapping cancer’s genetic landscape

  • Researcher: Dr Valentina Boeva
  • Institution: INSERM, Paris, France
  • Award Amount: £55,435 for 1 year from 1st June 2016
  • Cancer Type: General Cancer Research
Mapping cancer’s genetic landscape
Dr Valentina Boeva is developing a computer tool to help scientists identify and map DNA signposts in cancer.

Scientists now know that DNA isn’t just about the code it contains. Zoom out from the code and look at the DNA strand as a whole, coiled up in the cell, and you’ll see other molecules, proteins, dotted about like signposts along the length. These ‘epigenetic marker’ signposts can physically control when genes are switched on and off by various mechanisms. DNA in cancer cells has different epigenetic signposts to DNA in healthy cells.

Researchers think this difference could be exploited by new cancer treatments. But first they need to know exactly how the layout of these signposts differ.

Which is where Dr Boeva comes in. “Tumour samples taken from patients contain a mixture of cancer cells and healthy cells, making it very hard to identify which epigenetic markers are from healthy cells and which are from the tumour,” says Dr Boeva.

Think of separate maps for two cities overlaid on top of each other. It would be difficult to navigate through either city using such a map. Dr Boeva wants to develop a computer tool which can separate out the two signals, creating discrete maps of epigenetic signposts in healthy cells compared to cancer cells. Scientists can then use these maps to identify important cancer epigenetic markers when they study patient tissue samples.

“If we are successful this new computer method will really open doors for epigenetic studies on patients’ tumour tissues,” says Dr Boeva. “I think this will ultimately help us identify epigenetic markers which can predict patient response to treatments, and identify the best treatment for individual patients, based on their epigenetic profile.”
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