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Developing treatments for cancer

Queen Mary is a leading research-intensive university, ranked seventh in the UK for quality of research by the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021). It also ranks the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, which co-teaches the Medical Genetics programme, in the top seven institutions in the UK for medical research.

Course content is underpinned by our staff’s world-leading research, and new research findings are shared in weekly departmental seminars, so you can stay up to date with the latest developments. Below is just one recent example of the pioneering research carried out here.

Scientists discover molecular ‘lock’ that prevents genetic mistakes when cells divide (source)

Research from Queen Mary has provided new insight into how dividing cells control the separation of their DNA. The study showed that a protein called Astrin is important for the timely and even separation of chromosomes during cell division.

During cell division, our chromosomes – containing a duplicated set of DNA – must be split equally between the newly created daughter cells. To ensure this equal segregation of DNA, chromosomes must be correctly attached to microscopic rope-like structures, known as microtubules, which pull them apart.

However, the question of how stable attachments between chromosomes and microtubules are maintained while the chromosomes are being forced apart has long puzzled scientists.

In this study, the researchers found that the Astrin protein complex is recruited to correct attachments and works to secure them further. Professor Viji Draviam, Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Queen Mary and lead author of the study, said: “We discovered that Astrin arrives at the attachment site with an enzyme called PP1 when proper attachments have been made.

“Together, these proteins rapidly secure attachments so the attachment site can resist pulling forces, which are separating the DNA. This protein complex only acts on correct attachments, which helps make sure cells end up with the right number of chromosomes after cell division.”

Previous research has suggested that cancers with too few or too many chromosomes are more aggressive and show resistance to multiple drugs. Therefore, understanding how errors in the separation of the chromosomes occur and the mechanisms that prevent mistakes could help scientists to develop treatments for the disease.

Professor Richard Pickersgill, Professor of Structural Biology and Head of the School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary, said: "Right now our cells are dividing to replace lost and damaged cells; it’s a wonderful process essential for life but also incredibly complex – over 100 proteins are involved in orchestrating the organisation and segregation of chromosomes alone.

“There is much still to discover about the detailed mechanism of chromosome segregation, but this work, which explains the role of Astrin in strengthening microtubule attachments, is an important milestone along the way."

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