A PhD candidate from Canada’s Queen’s University Caitlin Miron had recently accepted the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation as a token of recognition for a ground-breaking discovery in cancer research.
Sifting through numerous chemical compounds, Miron had identified a novel substance which binds to a four-strand DNA structure called a guanine quadruplex, associated with cancer and a number of other diseases.
“It’s incredibly exciting because researchers have been trying to identify DNA binders with properties like this one for more than two decades,” said Miron in a statement. “It’s so new, we’ve had to devise our own techniques for analysing and testing it.”
While most people imagine DNA to be a double-helix, under certain conditions it can temporarily become a single strand. To simplify matters for the lay public, Miron presented her discovery by invoking an analogy of a single-strand necklace.
“You have a chain, which is your DNA, then you have beads that move freely along that chain until they come to a knot. That knot is a guanine quadruplex, which is an unusual form of DNA. Normally that knot can be unraveled, but if someone has put superglue on it, you can’t unknot it. What we found is essentially an excellent form of superglue.”
The reason it’s important is because these quadruplexes often form before sequences of DNA called oncogenes that lead to the development of cancer. If the “beads” (cellular machinery) can be stopped from accessing them by “gluing” the “knots” in place, cancer might be stopped or even prevented in the first place.
According to Miron, preliminary results have been positive, and her paper, due out by January 2018, will be available for licensing by pharmaceutical companies within two to five years.
“We are seeing therapeutic benefits in that cancer growth is reduced in some of the cell lines,” Miron said. “The next step is to determine the best way to adapt this compound for use in humans.”