A mechanism in our DNA cells called DNA damage response functions like an individual intelligent agent. It is able to monitor when things are going wrong and then try to come up with a way to deal with them. Understanding the response is the key to dealing with diseases that affect us as we age. It could help us figure out why we lose of our vitality as we grow old and it could transform how we understand cancer as the deadliest malady. Cell growth is the key to our lives, how we grow, and how our body repairs itself. Unfortunately, cancer is the deadly and abnormal perversion of cell growth. On December 4, geneticist Stephen Elledge, a Gregor Mendel Professor of Genetics and Medicine in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and in the Division of Genetics at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was awarded one of five $3 million Breakthrough Prizes in life sciences.
The Breakthrough Prizes – founded by the likes of Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, and Yuri Milner – give honor to research that could transform and perhaps more essentially, extend human life. Elledge’s research on the DNA damage response is certainly significant work in this area. While most scientists thought that cells had some way to respond to damage ever since the 1940’s, Elledge has finally revealed the biological components involved in this process. “One of the remarkable properties of nature’s most remarkable molecule, DNA, is self-awareness. It can detect information about its own integrity and transmit that information back to itself,” Elledge wrote in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) after he was awarded a prestigious Lasker award in 2015 for this specific work. Discoveries explaining how this DNA cell mechanism works are very significant in all scientific circles. When this response detects damaged DNA, it can respond in several ways.
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It may try to repair the damage, but it may also activate the immune system, cause the cell to destroy itself, or trigger a process known as senescence. This process helps to prevent tumors, but its downside is that it is also largely responsible for aging. While this research was a large part of why Elledge was awarded this breakthrough award, it’s only part of his extensive biology research. As a Harvard scientist, he and his colleagues recently discovered a way to identify every virus a person had ever been exposed to, another breakthrough in itself. Other life sciences Breakthrough Prizes this year were awarded to Harry Knoller for his work in understanding how RNA is central to protein synthesis; Roeland Nusse for research on a pathway essential for cancer and stem cell biology; Yoshinori Ohsumi, who was also awarded a Nobel Prize this year, for work on cell autophagy; and Huda Yahya Zoghbi for discoveries related to rare disease that help show how neurodegenerative diseases work.