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How to mend a broken gene

A scientist at Robarts Research Institute explores the connection between DNA repair and cancer

May 7, 2014

How to mend a broken gene
Through donor generosity, Caroline Schild-Poulter is able to investigate the “first events that allow cancer to develop” at her lab in Robarts Research Institute at Western University.

Repairs fascinate Caroline Schild-Poulter. Not the ones dealing with a broken bathroom faucet, car engine failure, or computer virus.

Rather, she explores the ways our cellular system responds to DNA damage – specifically how DNA repair can prevent cancer.

“Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to know ‘why’ things are the way they are,” says Schild-Poulter, associate professor in Biochemistry at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and scientist at Robarts Research Institute at Western University. “I’m attracted to genetics and molecular biology because they have the power to answer key questions about living organisms and how to cure illnesses. My work looks at the first events that allow cancer to develop.”

Regularly, our DNA is damaged by cellular processes, and normally, cells work to repair the damage. But when damaged DNA is not repaired, the affected cells continue to proliferate, allowing cancer to manifest.

DNA repair “a necessity of life”
In her research lab, Schild-Poulter investigates how cells respond to DNA damage, particularly how pathways signal DNA repair.

“This research will contribute to our understanding of the tools used by cells to mend broken genes, and the integral role of these tools in cancer prevention,” she says. “DNA repair is a necessity of life, and understanding how it works could unlock some key mysteries about how cancer develops.”

Her research received a boost recently when London resident Marilynne Fuller contributed $30,000 to support Schild-Poulter’s lab at Robarts, adding to previous donations to this cancer research.

Cancer “hits everyone”
“Mrs. Fuller’s support is a tremendous help,” says Schild-Poulter. “With her generosity, our research can lead to better detection and treatment of cancer – work that might not happen otherwise.”

For Mrs. Fuller, the motivation to give is personal. “My husband, Robert, died in 2002 of cancer – a disease that hits everyone in one way or another,” she says.

“I want to do what I can to find a cure,” adds Mrs. Fuller. “When you lose a loved one to cancer, you look at it from a different perspective. You want to do something to advance cancer research.”

Damaged cells to “repair themselves”
Her philanthropy is already contributing to success. Schild-Poulter has identified a protein that appears to regulate programmed cell death, known as apoptosis, in the event of irreparable DNA damage.

“A hallmark of cancer is the body’s inability to activate apoptosis of diseased cells,” adds Schild-Poulter. “If we can discover how to have these proteins tell damaged cells to stop replicating and get salvageable cells to repair themselves, we can possibly develop preventative therapies and targeted anti-cancer drugs.”

To fund life-transforming research at Robarts Research Institute at Western University, contact Vicki Hayter, Senior Development Officer at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry (519.661.2111, ext. 86236).

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Impact Western
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