While you read this news item, your DNA is breaking and being repaired. That's because DNA-breaks happen all the time. Usually, cells can repair those breaks just fine. Many tumor cells, however, have malfunctioning repair mechanisms. Understanding how this repair works might give us clues about how to fight cancer. Eva Brinkman received the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek award 2018 for her valuable contribution to this field of work.
While studying how cells repair their DNA, researcher Eva Brinkman realized there was no quick and affordable tool for measuring how well DNA is repaired in an experiment. Brinkman: "To study repair you first have to break the DNA. We used the upcoming technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to do this. This uses a protein that can be programmed to cut the DNA at a specific location. The cells then repair their DNA, often leaving a scar. This is what we want to measure. You could read the sequence of the complete DNA to find this scar but that's expensive and time consuming."
So she came up with a smart way to measure this. She learned how to program and she developed a web tool called TIDE, together with her colleague Tao Chen at the Bas van Steensel lab. This turned out to be a huge success: in the first year there were more than 10.000 users worldwide. "A lot of people were using CRISPR", Brinkman explains. "All of a sudden, they had a way to see whether their experiments worked or not - within a week." Last year the Netherlands Cancer Institute licensed the tool to the company Desktop Genetics. "With this tool we discovered that cells use different mechanisms for repairing their broken DNA, each having its own speed and efficiency."
"Eva is very creative", says group leader Bas van Steensel. "It is very impressive how she combines high quality wet-lab work with the writing of computer code that is being used by thousands of other scientists." Aside from her PhD research, Brinkman also founded the company Science Matters, dedicated to science communication.
The Netherlands Cancer Institute awards the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek award to the young scientist that has proved to be the most talented in the previous year. The prize money is 6000 euros, which will go towards new research. Eva Brinkman will defend her PhD thesis on April 17 at Erasmus MC. In February she'll be starting her postdoc research at the SciLifeLab in Sweden.