At its heart, cancer is a disease that starts when genes go wrong. This can happen when the DNA in your cells gets damaged, for example by tobacco smoke, UV radiation in sunlight, or just the normal chemical reactions of life within our cells.
And, in some rare cases, specific inherited gene faults can also add to the mix.
To try to prevent cancer developing, our cells have evolved sophisticated ways to prevent this damage – collectively called the DNA repair system.
A number of cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy and some chemotherapy, also aim to damage cancer cells’ DNA, but so badly that they die. This leads to a problem – cancer cells can switch on their DNA repair systems to protect themselves against the damage, making these treatments much less effective.
So understanding exactly how cells repair their damaged DNA, both in health and in cancer, is vital for figuring out how this disease starts, as well as finding more effective ways to treat it.
Cancer Research UK’s scientists have a long and distinguished track record in understanding DNA repair. One of the world leaders in this field is Professor Steve Jackson at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, whose work we’ve funded for more than a decade. Together with postdoctoral researcher Abderrahmane Kaidi, he’s now managed to join the dots between three previously separate areas of research related to DNA repair
Their discovery, published in the prestigious journal Nature, sheds light on the fundamental mechanisms that detect and repair genetic damage, and points towards important new approaches for treatment.
Let’s look at their work in more detail.