Dr Alejandro Vaquero and his team in Barcelona are aiming to understand how a group of enzymes, known as sirtuins, plays a role in the formation of tumours. They hope that by understanding more about these enzymes they will uncover ways to target them for cancer treatment.
Alejandro Vaquero is group leader at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona. His group is trying to better understand chromatin - the mass of proteins and DNA that is present in every cell.
Sirtuins are a set of enzymes that allow the cell to respond to environmental stressors such as hyperoxidative conditions, metabolic alterations or any DNA damaging conditions such as irradiation or damaging chemicals.These stress conditions are very relevant as they have been shown to contribute to tumour development. Sirtuins can influence the cell to respond in varied ways depending on the severity of the stress condition faced by the cell. Under certain circumstances sirtuins will allow cells to adapt and survive but if the stress reaches dangerous levels sirtuins can also instruct the cell to die. Due to these complex roles, alteration of some sirtuins can help prevent tumours forming whereas others can actively help promote them. This complexity is in part due to the fact that some sirtuins show two distinct enzymatic activities. Dr Vaquero wants to understand this enzymatic diversity and the specific contribution of each of these activities to the role of sirtuins in cancer.
Drugs that block sirtuins are already showing promise in clinical trials but because the enzymes have such a broad biological role there are many toxic side effects. Understanding more about these enzymes, including discovering new targets, could help identify better ways to target them and reduce side effects in patients.