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Queen Mary researchers awarded major funding for studies on mitochondrial DNA and asbestos-related lung cancer

Dr Sarah Martin has been awarded the prestigious Medical Research Council New Investigator Award to elucidate the role of a number of DNA repair genes in the maintenance of mitochondrial DNA integrity and cancer.

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Dr Peter Szlosarek and Dr Sarah Martin
Dr Peter Szlosarek and Dr Sarah Martin

Over £420,000 has been generously awarded over a three-year period to Dr Martin, who works at the Barts Cancer Institute (part of the School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary, University of London), and it includes funding for a postdoctoral position.

Mitochondria are known as the power-houses of the cell, generating the energy required for cellular processes. To date, although many mutations in mitochondria DNA have been associated with cancer, there is little known about the exact way in which mitochondrial DNA mutations may give rise to tumours. Dr Martin and her team have identified three genes, which were previously associated with cancer, that can regulate mitochondrial DNA levels.

The funding will enable them to investigate how these identified genes can regulate mitochondrial DNA levels and determine the impact of this regulation on tumour development. The research will also provide fundamental insight into how mitochondria may be a therapeutic target for certain cancers.

In addition, the British Lung Foundation and the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund have awarded Dr Martin in collaboration with Dr Peter Szlosarek, approximately £180,000 to fund a postdoctoral position to identify new drugs for the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma is a rare cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs and is caused by exposure to asbestos. Currently, the prognosis for these patients remains poor with an average survival time of 12-14 months with current chemotherapy regimes. Therefore, there is a critical clinical need to identify new therapeutic strategies for this tumour type. An enzyme called the arginine synthesis enzyme (ASS1) does not function properly in approximately 50 per cent of mesotheliomas. This study will utilise an approach known as “synthetic lethality” to identify novel compounds that can selectively kill mesothelioma cells deficient in ASS1, whilst not harming the normal cells. This type of targeted therapeutic approach can reduce the harmful side-effects often associated with current chemotherapies.

Taken together, these awards will enable Dr Martin and her team to increase their understanding of the genetic mistakes that lie at the heart of cancer, and use this knowledge to find more effective ways to target the disease.

Postdoctoral positions will be advertised through the Queen Mary Teaching and Research Jobs website.

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