We are finding out how our cells repair damage to their DNA, and how failures in this process lead to cancer and other diseases.
All our cells contain DNA – a complex molecule encoding the genes that tell cells when to divide, specialise or die. If a cell’s DNA gets damaged then it may start growing out of control, leading to cancer.
DNA is quite fragile and easily damaged, both by the normal processes of life at work within our cells and by external agents such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke or ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. However, our cells have evolved clever ‘repair kits’ that spot DNA damage and patch it up, helping to protect us against tumours. If these repair kits are faulty or inefficient then mistakes can quickly build up and cause cells to become cancerous.
To find out how these repair kits work – and what happens when they fail - we are studying the molecular components of these repair kits and the genes that encode them in great detail. By looking at cells from different organisms, ranging from mice and humans to tiny nematode worms, we want to find new genes involved in the repair process and understand how all the parts of the kit work together to keep cells healthy.
We are particularly interested in a type of DNA repair known as double-strand break repair, which happens when the DNA molecule has been completely snapped in two. Not only does this happen in normal cells in the body to repair DNA damage, but it also occurs when eggs and sperm are made (known as meiosis) and during the generation of cells in the immune system.
We hope that our work will give us a better understanding of how DNA repair works, and how faulty repair kits contribute to conditions such as cancer, ageing and infertility.