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25
Jul
2018

Australian-based study shows promise in brain cancer fight

A team of Sydney scientists have made a discovery that may help us better understand the biology of cancer.

The study, led by Dr Tony Cesare of the Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) at Westmead, in collaboration with scientists from CMRI and the University of New South Wales, aimed to determine why telomeres, the DNA segments found at the end of human chromosomes, deteriorate with age.

As we age, telomeres naturally shorten and tell aging cells to stop dividing, a vital function to prevent cancer from forming. However, some people are born with abnormally short telomeres, and therefore face a greater risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

 
Study lead Dr Tony Cesare, of the Children's Medical Research institute at Westmead

Telomeres are vital in preventing cancerous cells from forming. People born with abnormally short telomeres face a greater risk of developing cancer.

“Telomeres normally form a loop structure, where the chromosome end is hidden. We found that when the telomere-loop unfolds, the chromosome end is exposed, and the cell perceives this as broken DNA.” Dr Cesare explained that “it is not telomere length that matters, but telomere structure. The telomere-loop becomes harder to form as telomeres get short”.

In addition, the team identified that telomeres can change structure in response to chemotherapy, which is used to treat cancer cells.

The results of this study have also proven how important technological advances are in the field of research. Dr Cesare first developed his theories about telomere-loops in 2002 throughout his early studies. However, it is only recently that technology has become available to easily visualise telomere-loops under a microscope.

“This technology allowed us to see 10 times more detail than we had in the past,’’ Dr Cesare said. “We could pass the physical limits of light and see the telomere-loop structure”.

This new technology combined with genetic models that mimic cellular aging allowed the team to demonstrate that both telomere length and structure may impact human health. The study may act as a benchmark for future studies in furthering our understanding of the role of telomeres in cancer biology and disease.

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