March 2, 2007

Major Research Into 'Switching Off' Cancer Genes To Be Carried Out By University Of Leicester

A leading ВЈ1.2M funded research project into the treatment of cancer cells by 'turning off' key genes is to be carried out at the University of Leicester.

Dr Shaun Cowley, who has just moved to the Department of Biochemistry at the University from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute at Cambridge, is about to begin work on the research project which has been funded by the Medical Research Council.

The project, entitled "Analysis of Class-I Histone Deacetylase Function in Embryonic Development, Tissue Formation and Homeostasis", will study how certain enzymes can switch genes 'off''.

Dr Cowley explained: "'Histone deacetylase' (HDAC) enzymes are present in all cells of the body. Their function is to switch genes 'off', and make sure they stay 'off'. In many respects shutting a gene down is every bit as important as switching a gene on.

"I intend to study how three different HDAC enzymes (HDACs 1, 2 and 8) do this. One of the best methods for understanding how an enzyme works is to generate mutant cells in which the specific enzyme has been inactivated.

"These 'knock-out' cells can then be examined for changes in their characteristics, for instance lack of growth, which can then be attributed to the function of that particular enzyme. The cells we use are mouse embryonic stem cells which are an extremely powerful tool because we can manipulate them in the tissue culture flask to make almost every cell type present in the body"

HDAC enzymes are also the focus of intense medical research. "there are a number of existing drugs that can inhibit HDAC activity in cells. If we treat cancer cells in culture with these compounds they stop growing and in some instances die altogether"

This anti-growth property of HDAC inhibitors, in addition to their low-toxicity, has encouraged their use as anti-cancer drugs.

Recently, two different HDAC inhibitors have passed phase 2 clinical trials in the USA with encouraging results. However, despite these promising findings it is not at all clear how these drugs work at a molecular level.

There is therefore, a strong need to understand how HDACs work, collectively and individually, in cells and whole animals. Dr Cowley hopes that his investigation of the physiological activities of HDACs will uncover many novel functions and new possibilities for the use HDAC inhibitors in molecular medicine.

Dr Cowley commented: "I'm excited by the opportunity to come and work in the Biochemistry Department at Leicester. The five-year Career Development Award from the Medical Research Council has given me the opportunity to set up my own research group and pursue these goals independently."


Ather Mirza
Director of Press and Publications
University of Leicester
University Road


- A member of the 1994 Group of universities that share a commitment to research excellence, high quality teaching and an outstanding student experience.

- England's top ranked University for teaching quality and overall satisfaction amongst universities teaching full time students - National Student Survey 2005 and 2006

- One of just 19 UK universities to feature in world's top 200- Shanghai Jiao Tong International Index, 2005 and 2006. Ranked as a Top 20 university by The Times Good University Guide.

-Short listed Higher Education Institution of the Year - THES awards 2005 and 2006

-Students' Union of the Year award 2005, short listed 2006

Founded in 1921, the University of Leicester has 19,000 students from 120 countries. Teaching in 18 subject areas has been graded Excellent by the Quality Assurance Agency- including 14 successive scores - a consistent run of success matched by just one other UK University. Leicester is world renowned for the invention of DNA Fingerprinting by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and houses Europe's biggest academic Space Research Centre. 90% of staff are actively engaged in high quality research and 13 subject areas have been awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. The University's research grant income places it among the top 20 UK research universities. The University employs over 3,000 people, has an annual turnover of ВЈ167.5m, covers an estate of 94 hectares and is engaged in a ВЈ300m investment programme- among the biggest of any UK university.

For further information please visit:
University of Leicester

No comments: