World Cancer Day: An Inside Look at Radiation Therapy

While the word radiation is normally associated with harmful exposure and nuclear weapons, it can also be beneficial, particularly in the health sector where it is used in medical imaging scans such as X-rays. Moreover, radiation is readily used in treating cancer, with almost half of all cancer patients receiving radiotherapy as part of their treatment plan. Working to find new and more effective forms of treatment, scientists are discovering ways of maximizing the effectiveness of radiotherapy while minimizing harmful side effects.

“Radiation acts by damaging DNA,” explained Andreas Kakarougkas, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Department of Biology and assistant professor of Scientific Thinking. “When DNA is damaged in healthy cells, it can be harmful to us, but when DNA is damaged in cancer cells (radiotherapy), it can help treat the cancer. Researching how DNA is damaged and repaired can help us discover ways of increasing the effectiveness of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Kakarougkas, who received his PhD from the University of Sussex, uses mammalian cells to study the intricate mechanisms that cells have evolved to deal with DNA damage. Each human cell contains a billion microscopic machines (proteins) that must work in unison for a cell to function.

In his most recent work published in Molecular Cell, Kakarougkas and his colleagues studied how cells are able to coordinate repair of DNA damage with other cellular processes. Kakarougkas’s work identifies BAF180, a subunit of a complex with central roles in gene expression and DNA repair, as an important player in this process. “The gene encoding BAF180 is frequently mutated in cancer,” said Kakarougkas. “This suggests that BAF180 has an important role in preventing normal cells from becoming cancerous. Our work proposes that one of the ways in which BAF180 does this is by ensuring that certain cellular processes are regulated to interface with DNA repair mechanisms. Failing to do so seems to increase the risk of cancer.”

The findings of Kakarougkas’s work are summarized in a review article in the current issue of the Molecular and Cellular Oncology journal. This type of research can have significant impact in the world of medicine, Kakarougkas explained. “There is variation in the genetic makeup of each tumor. If we can identify the changes that have occurred in a tumor’s cells, such as the loss of BAF180, then we can design a treatment plan that is specific to that cancer,” he noted. “Such a personalized approach will lead to therapy that is less toxic to the patient, but just as effective.”

Kakarougkas aims to continue his work on what causes cells to become cancerous and how to destroy them when they do. “There were an estimated 14.1 million cancer cases around the world in 2012, and this number is expected to rise to 24 million by 2035,” he said. “Millions of lives have been saved by discoveries in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but there is still a long way to go until cancer is beaten, and research is critical in making this happen.