Malaysian wins prestigious genetics prize for cancer research

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Malaysian scientist Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, who is based in the United Kingdom, has been awarded the Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2022 in recognition of her contributions to the current understanding of the causes of cancers.

On Twitter, Serena said she was thrilled and grateful for the award.

“Thank you to all that have taught, supported, pushed and mentored me. So appreciative!

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“My wonderful team – this is for us!” she said.

The award was announced by the UK’s Royal Society last night, which said her analyses of mutations present in cancer cells are now being applied to cancer treatments.

She will deliver her prize lecture next year, where she would also receive a medal and a gift of £2,000 (RM11,568).

Serena is currently a clinician-scientist based at Cambridge University’s Cancer Research UK, where she leads a research group that leverages computational biology techniques to study mutations found in cancer cells.

In one of her more recent works, her team described experiments that identified nine genes that play key roles in repairing damaged human DNA and the patterns of mutations that arise when each of these genes is disabled.

“Some DNA repair genes are like precision tools, able to fix very specific kinds of DNA damage.

“Human DNA has four building blocks: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. As an example, the OGG1 gene has a very specific role of fixing guanine when it is damaged by oxygen.

“When we knocked out OGG1, this crucial defence was severely weakened resulting in a very specific pattern of guanines that had mutated into thymines throughout the genome,” Serena was quoted in a Cambridge University press release dated April 27.

The team then developed a computer algorithm called MMRDetect, which can identify such mutational signatures in cancer cells and figure out which repair pathways might have stopped working.

The algorithm had been “trained” using earlier data collected through the 100,000 Genomes Project – a national programme in the UK that linked the genome of a group of participants to their medical records. The project had been completed in 2018.

This algorithm can help doctors figure out which cancer immunotherapy treatments will work for a particular patients’ cancer, and when it is unlikely to work.

“Having developed the algorithm on tumours in this study (the 100,000 Genomes Project), the plan now is to roll it out across all cancers picked up by Genomics England…

“To be most effective, the MMRDetect algorithm could be used as soon as a patient has received a cancer diagnosis and their tumour characterised by genome sequencing.

“The team believes that this tool could help to transform the way a wide range of cancers are treated and save many lives,” the press release said.

A paper describing the study and the algorithm had been published in the journal Nature Cancer on April 21 this year.

Serena qualified in medicine from the University of Cambridge in 2000 on a scholarship from Petronas.

After that, she pursued post-graduate studies at the Wellcome Sanger Institute (WSI) in 2009, exploring breast cancer using whole genome sequencing (WGS).

She was subsequently awarded a CRUK Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship in 2017 before moving to the University of Cambridge.

In 2019, she was honoured with the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize 2019, which some have dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Cancer Research”.