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CMRI scientist plays vital role in new cancer research

27/Jun/2018  

A Children's Medical Research Institute scientist has played a vital role in discovering a conceptually new way to attack cancer.

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Dr Scott Cohen was part of a team that had its work published in the international journal Nature Communications this month.

He is a leading Australian expert on telomerase. Telomerase is present in about 90 per cent of all cancers and is considered a prime target for new therapies. Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes, which naturally shorten as we age. Cancer cells use telomerase to lengthen telomeres, allowing for unlimited cell proliferation.  

The latest work was led by Associate Professor Oliver Rackham at Perth-based Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research. It involved engineering proteins that clamp tightly to the telomere. The proteins effectively prevented telomerase from reaching the telomeres and stopped telomere lengthening.

Dr Cohen, who is a Senior Research Officer in the Cell Biology Unit at CMRI, performed the “proof-of-principle’’ tests in his lab at Westmead.

“Oliver sent me the proteins and I measured the activity of telomerase in the presence of his proteins,’’ Dr Cohen said. “They wiped out telomerase activity – there was no lengthening at all. Preventing telomere lengthening is essentially what everyone wants to do with cancer.’’

While the principle has been proven in a test tube, the next step is seeing what happens outside of this environment.

“To get this into cells is going to be a big next step,’’ Dr Cohen said. “We’re not sure if they will behave the same way.’’

Dr Cohen, who has the only “purified’’ source of telomerase in Australia, said it was fantastic to be part of the project.

“It was a thrill to be part of some really cool science,’’ he said. “It was very exciting when Oliver asked me to be part of his team.’’

Dr Cohen’s work was made possible through sustained support from Perpetual IMPACT Philanthropy.

The Perth team will now be working towards extending this proof-of-principle to cancer cells grown in the laboratory, with the long-term aim of developing a safe cancer therapy for the clinic.