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New cancer centre launches world first project

A $2.7 million grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) has provided scientists at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research with the resources to conduct a world first cancer research project.   A private foundation, the ACRF awards grants to leading edge cancer research programs around Australia.

Professor Emma Whitelaw is leading the five year ACRF Cancer Epigenetics Program which seeks to identify new genes involved in a range of human cancers, and studies how environmental factors interact with DNA to cause these diseases.

“Until recently, experts believed that the sole source of cancer was a mutation in the DNA resulting from environmental damage,” said Professor Whitelaw.“What we now know is that the cause can also be an epimutation.”

Epimutations are changes in the way in which a gene is packaged in a chromosome, resulting in changes to its function. These changes accumulate through age, as cells with the altered genes divide and multiply, potentially giving rise to cancer.

Professor Whitelaw’s team has already identified a new group of genes known as chromatin caretakers, and are now examining how these genes interact with environmental factors. These caretaker genes ensure that chromatin functions properly, and experts suspect that mutations in these genes will increase the risk of cancer.

“Firstly, we plan to find other chromatin caretaker candidate genes that can be used to screen people for mutations. Our ultimate aim, although still years away, is to develop epigenetic therapy to maintain the normal function of genes and thus act as a preventative measure for cancer.”

A large proportion of the funding has already been invested in an Illumina Genome Analyser II, which analyses DNA one hundred times faster than any other technology and at one tenth of previous costs. The process, known as deep sequencing, will allow the researchers to find epimutations associated with cancer.

The ACRF Centre for Cancer Epigenetics has been established at QIMR especially to house this equipment, which needs to be kept at a temperature of 15-20OC and in 20-80% relative humidity.

“Funding projects being undertaken by Australia’s very best scientists, who are recognised as the best in the world in their field, like Professor Whitelaw, is our business”, said ACRF Chairman, Tom Dery.  ACRF’s sole focus is to provide these scientists with state-of-the-art facilities and technology capable of exploring new approaches to achieve better results for cancer patients in Australia and around the globe,” he said.