Dr Andrew Das, a researcher at the University of Otago in Christchurch, was announced as the winner of the 2018 NZ Society for Oncology Roche NZ Translational Cancer Research Fellowship at the society’s annual conference at the weekend.

Das will use the fellowship to further his work as part of a research team investigating the role of epigenetics in cancer and how that information can be used to target new forms of cancer therapy.

Epigenetics is the mechanism by which external factors can trigger genes in a cell to be turned ‘on’ or ‘off’. These epigenetic processes don’t change the DNA of a gene – so don’t cause mutations – but instead control how the cell ‘reads’ the genetic information.

“Epigenetics are the markings that help cells remember their identity,” said Das who gained a medical degree at Otago before completing his PhD in biochemistry in 2016.
“These markings are signals that can be written, read or erased. When the cells forget how they’re supposed to behave they can become dysfunctional resulting in cancer.”

Das said there is growing interest in whether targeting the epigenetic programming of cells can be used as a cancer therapy, including recent evidence that ascorbate (vitamin C) may be able to reverse epigenetic changes in a subset of people with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Das said he and his research collaborator Professor Margrett Vissers want to understand why these changes happen and whether ascorbate can help restore normal cell function for this group of people.

He said the fellowship would enable him to train in other centres both in New Zealand and overseas to learn the epigenetic techniques required as well as the bioinformatics need to carry out detailed analysis of existing global cancer databases.

“Initially, the research team will develop the appropriate human AML cell lines, which will model the combinations of mutations found in patients. By upskilling, I will be able to characterise the cancer sub-types that are likely to respond to treatment. The data generated from this work will inform the development of clinical trials targeting epigenetic cancer sub-groups that are responsive to ascorbate,” said Das.

The study was inspired by the investigation of a patient with AML who responded to ascorbate treatment after failing to respond to chemotherapy.

Vissers said the award could not be more timely with the current international interest in the role that epigenetics play in cancer.

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