Dr Denes Hnisz and his team aim to explore the 3D structure of the genome in cancer cells compared to healthy cells. They hope that better understanding differences in these structures might reveal new treatment targets in oesophageal cancer.
Dr Denes Hnisz grew up in a small town in Hungary. As a kid, one of his favourite activities was solving puzzles. Now, leading a biomedical research lab in Berlin, Germany, he says that he gets to work on the most intriguing puzzles of all: how the human body works, how problems with molecules in our body make us sick and how we can fix that.
Although survival for oesophageal cancer has tripled in the last 40 years, it remains low. Only 12% of patients survive for more than 10 years after their diagnosis. To this date, no targeted therapeutics exist for the treatment of oesophageal cancer. This critical roadblock is partly due to a lack of knowledge about what causes oesophageal cells to turn cancerous on a genetic level. Genes that drive cancers are called oncogenes – they are like a gas pedal pressed all the way to the floor, hurtling the cancer along.
Most efforts aimed to identify oncogenic drivers focus on genes that encode proteins. But Dr Denes Hnisz proposes that changes in the 3D organization of the DNA - rather than alterations in protein coding genes - could be partly responsible for oesophageal cancer. He and his team are now trying to generate 3D maps of DNA in oesophageal cancer cells. In this way they hope to identify new genes involved in the development of oesophageal cancer. Their insights could improve prognostic markers and reveal new targets for the treatments.
We are hopeful that results that emerge from the work funded by Worldwide Cancer Research will lead to a measurable impact in the clinic within the next 10-20 years.