Student - March 26, 2009

USING WORMS TO PREDICT CANCER

Wageningen nematologist Dr. Jan Kammenga expects to be a step nearer to being able to predict cancer in humans in a few years’ time. Thanks to the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. At the beginning of this year, Kammenga received three million euros from the European Union to work with four partner institutions to identify the role of genetic variation in the formation of cancer. This is unusual: a nematologist who bags an EU project in the field of human health, especially considering that only five out of 150 project proposals were accepted.

The nematode C. Elegans is an excellent model for human health. A number of Nobel prize winners for medicine made their breakthrough discoveries thanks to this worm. ‘It is a simple creature, but all the functions are present’, says Kammenga. ‘What is more, the whole genome of C. Elegans is known, as is the evolution of the cell growth. This knowledge makes it possible to study genetic influence on the development of diseases.’
Kammenga focuses in this on genetic variation, which does indeed play a crucial role in hereditary diseases. ‘We can turn off a gene in the nematode, and use a mathematical model to determine whether that leads to symptoms of disease.’ Kammenga knows from previous research that certain genes have an influence on the formation of cancer. ‘But we do not yet know how other genes may influence that process.’ To find this out, he also has to research the unknown alleles – bits of DNA with a numerical code. ‘A DNA order that is just a little bit different can have major consequences.’
By researching several relatives of C. elegans, he hopes to find the DNA packages of the nematode that drive the formation of cancer. ‘After that we will look at whether those alleles also appear in humans. A certain set of genes may come out that has a big influence on cancer formation’, says Kammenga. He sees his research as a voyage of discovery. ‘We are the first group in the world to research and model the influence of unknown alleles. We don’t know what we will find.’
The nematologist is working with research groups in Groningen, Switzerland and England. The Wageningen group is good at measuring gene expression; the other groups are strong on cell development and data analysis. With the European subsidy, the five partners can take on ten more researchers. Kammenga has added a PhD student and a Postdoc to his team. There is stiff competition from American researchers, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology for example. ‘We’ve got to score quickly, and not hesitate once we’ve got results.’

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