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28Mar 2019

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2,5 million ERC-grant for gene regulation research

Reuven Agami

The European Research Council (ERC) has assigned an advanced grant of 2,5 million Euros to researcher Reuven Agami from the Netherlands Cancer Institute. Over the next 5 years he and his team will investigate small parts of DNA that regulate the activity of genes. They will try to figure out which of those DNA-elements play key roles in cancer.

Our DNA is packed tightly into the cells of our body. In order to make it fit, the DNA forms innumerable loops. Decades of scientific research has shown that cells make these loops at predetermined anchor sites. Also, these anchor sites turned out to be essential for proper timing of gene expression, and therefore the ability of a cell to produce functional proteins. Malformed loops can cause diseases like cancer.

Anchor elements

That's why Reuven Agami and his colleagues investigate these regulatory DNA-elements. These bits of DNA are involved in the formation of DNA-loops and they function as a stop signal between different parts of the DNA, preventing that the expression of one gene affects its neighbour gene. With the emerging DNA-editing method CRISPR Agami will attempt to figure out which of the roughly 40.000 known anchor elements stimulate or block cancer, or interfere with treatment. With a different technique he will investigate how those anchor elements manage to influence cell behavior and response to treatment.

"Researchers have identified many genes and mutations that are involved in cancer", says Agami. "However, genes make up just a tiny fraction of our DNA - up to 3 per cent. And we know in fact that the vast majority of cancer mutations appear in other parts of their DNA. Some even in or nearby anchor elements, for example. Our hope is that by carefully studying these parts of the DNA we will be able to better understand cancer and identify new ways to fight it and better predict therapy outcomes."

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