Before coming to Australia and joining QIMR’s Signal Transduction Lab, Dr Derek Richard’s original research involved the study of an ancient organism which lives in boiling sulphuric acid pools in Iceland.
Known as archaea, these single-celled micro-organisms survive in one of the most extreme environments on earth. To do so, it relies on a ‘super protein’ to protect and repair its DNA.
This same super repair protein has also been found in humans. Named hSSB1, it is the central protein required to protect humans from cancer-causing DNA damage.
“Human cancer is caused when specific genes are damaged and not repaired properly,” Dr Richard explained. “When this occurs in certain genes it’s like losing a map or set of instructions, which can then lead to cells dividing uncontrollably.”
“An average cell’s DNA is damaged 30,000 times every day,” added Dr Richard. “Without hSSB1, these cells cannot repair their genes when they are damaged.”
QIMR and Cancer Therapeutics (CTx) recently announced a collaboration to discover and develop new drugs for the treatment of many forms of cancer, based on Dr Richard’s findings.
In the lab, the Signal Transduction team can utilise a technique to destroy any protein in study. Through this technique, they discovered that no cancer can survive without hSSB1, whilst normal cells survive.
“We have developed an exciting drug strategy that would allow hSSB1 to be non-functional in patients,” said Dr Richard. “CTx and QIMR are now working together to make the drug and test its effectiveness.”