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Campus Connection Wrench in the machinery

If scientists can disable cancer cells’ repair mechanisms, cancer will be easier to kill.

As you read this, DNA throughout your body is being damaged — by the routine wear and tear of everyday cellular activity, by ordinary glitches in cell division and by outside malefactors like ultraviolet light and tobacco smoke. Fortunately, molecular maintenance teams are also at work, constantly scanning your DNA for trouble. When a problem is detected, they flag the area for repair, temporarily halt cell operations and call in specialized crews that slice out damaged stretches of DNA, manufacture and install replacement parts and clean up debris. It’s a system of amazing power and efficiency, comprising hundreds of specialized genes and proteins. Without it, cells would break down, mutations would build up and cancer risk would accelerate.

Why, then, is Wolf-Dietrich Heyer looking for ways to disable the human DNA repair system?

“It’s counter-intuitive,” acknowledges Heyer, a professor of microbiology who has spent his career trying to sort out how the invisible repair machinery operates. “But inhibiting DNA repair may help us fight cancer.”


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