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Issue 483, 5 June 2002

Robot to speed gene cancer research

Robots will be helping clinical scientists at St James's University Hospital to understand the causes of diseases like leukaemia, in the first facility of its kind in the UK.

Molecular medicine researchers, Constanze Bonifer, Peter Cockerill and Louise Colletta (pictured left, l-r) are studying how genes interact with proteins, and in particular how DNA is 'packaged' into cells. The research has implications for many types of diseases, but the researchers are focusing on leukaemia and gastro-intestinal cancer.

"DNA is a very long molecule and has to be packed tightly to fit into cells – but if proteins can't access the necessary genes within the DNA then the cells can’t fulfil their function," said Dr Bonifer. "Cells in different parts of the body pack their DNA in different ways, to expose different genes relative to that part of the body, be that the liver, the brain or the blood.

"In many cancers, a gene is mutated or active at the wrong time, or too much, triggering a whole chain of events and making other genes act incorrectly. In order to develop effective gene therapies, we need to know what makes genes behave as they do."

A major part of the research looks at 'normal' cells to see how their genes function, but other projects focus on cell samples from patients with leukaemia, and using the blood cell system and blood cell development as a model for other parts of the body.

Very sophisticated technology allows the researchers to look at genes directly, to identify which proteins are sitting on which genes, how that affects the DNA structure and correlates with the cell's activity. 

Carrying out some of this work robotically will speed up the process dramatically and make it more accurate. The new robotic workstation is jointly funded by the medical research council and the University.

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