DNA and Cancer


Eighteenth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2003

Lecture 5   :   14 February 2003

Professor Ron Laskey
Hutchison/MRC Research Centre, Cambridge


At present rates, one third of the UK population will suffer from cancer and one quarter will die from it. DNA plays crucial roles in the cause, detection and treatment of cancer. Cancer is a disease of DNA in that it arises by accumulation of a series of altered genes within a cell, causing it to become cancerous. These changes can arise from inheritance of an altered gene, predisposing an individual to certain types of cancer, or by DNA damage in one or a few cells of the body, for example DNA damage caused by carcinogens such as tobacco smoke.

Paradoxically DNA damage is also important in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer. Radiotherapy and many chemotherapeutic drugs exert their beneficial effects by severely damaging DNA, thus killing cancer cells. Recently, automated methods for seeking DNA alterations in tumours have emerged for diagnosing them more precisely and allowing more tailored treatments to be selected. Conversely proteins that regulate DNA synthesis in the cell are emerging as promising general markers for screening for many of the commonest cancers. Improving early detection could increase the success of existing cancer treatments.


Ron Laskey started his career at Oxford, followed by post-doctoral posts on the scientific staff of Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. There he discovered signals that direct proteins to the cell nucleus and invented a range of sensitive methods for detecting radio-isotopes. In 1983 he moved to the Charles Darwin Chair in the University of Cambridge, first in the Department of Zoology, then in the Wellcome CRC Institute and now as Director of the MRC Cancer Cell Unit in the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre. His group discovered "importins", receptors for the signals that direct proteins to the cell nucleus.

Throughout most of his career, Ron Laskey's main interest has been how cells control DNA synthesis. He has developed cell-free systems that allow these processes to be studied in a test tube, in extracts from human cells. Some of the proteins studied in this work are emerging as promising markers for the development of screening tests for the commonest cancers.

Ron Laskey is a Fellow of Darwin College and a Fellow of the Royal Society. His work has been recognised by awards from several countries, including the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine. He has organised and edited two series of Darwin College Lectures. On a lighter note , he has written and recorded two albums called Songs for Cynical Scientists and More Songs for Cynical Scientists.

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