A study on how the size of the structures at the tip of chromosomes, called telomeres, is regulated has secured João Pedro Vinagre the 2014 Pulido Valente Prize. This research, by the IPATIMUP team, at the University of Porto, uncovered a new mechanism at play in several types of cancer, including skin, brain, bladder and thyroid cancer.
Telomeres at the tips of chromosomes become shorter each time a cell divides. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing. This clock-like mechanism is one of the ways through which adult cells do not divide indefinitely. When these mechanisms go awry, tumors and cancer may arise. João Pedro Vinagre and the team he is a part of identified a mutation that circumvents the biological clock, causing cancer. The mutation is in the gene that codes for the protein telomerase, whose function is to elongate telomeres. As cells age, their telomerase becomes less active, and telomeres shorten.
The mutation is located in an unexplored region of the telomerase gene. It causes the cell to start producing telomerase again, leading to an increase in the size of telomeres, with consequences to cells’ mortality. The mutation is associated with more aggressive tumours and weaker responses to treatment. This study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The Pulido Valente Science prize is jointly awarded by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) and the Fundação Professor Francisco Pulido Valente (FFPV), to distinguish the best paper in the biomedical sciences, on work carried out in a Portuguese research centre, led by a researcher that is under 35 years of age. Winners of this annual prizes are awarded €10 000, with equal contributions from both organisations.
Every year, FCT and FFPV decide on a theme for the prize. The theme for the 2014 edition was “heterogeneity in tumours: at genome and/or cellular level”. The applications are evaluated by a panel of Portugal-based researchers, with well-established expertise in the area selected for that year.