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24 September, 2023
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Sir Paul Nurse: Fighting cancer through the cell cycle

In an exclusive interview, Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse delves into the research that opened new doors for combating cancer

Holder of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Sir Paul Nurse, visited the island last week where he participated as the honorary speaker in the 4th Lecture of Academic Excellence organized by the Cyprus School of Molecular Medicine and the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics. His lecture, entitled ‘Control of the Cell Cyle’, delved into the depths of the research which had led to his prestigious Nobel prize.

In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, Nurse spoke of his field of research, his brand-new research institute in central London, the Francis Crick Interview. Regarding the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, Nurse said he was highly impressed, and met enthusiastic researchers, which benefit both the local community through applied science, but also to the wider scientific community through research.

What was the content of the research that led to your Nobel Prize?

The work that got my Nobel Prize was to do with what is called the cell cycle. Every living thing including ourselves is made of cells, in fact we all came from a single cell which is the fertilized egg, and we are formed by repeated divisions of that cell, to make what we are. Cell reproduction, which is the reproduction of one cell to two, the cell cycle, is a produces that is therefore important for all growth and development and also for diseases like cancer, when it goes out of control. So it’s an important biological process. What my laboratory did was work out how that that process is controlled. We worked it out in a very simple organism, in yeast, but we showed that the same control work in every other living thing that we can see – all animals, plants, fungi, including ourselves – and that this control system is common in everything we see.

Every living thing including ourselves is made of cells, we all came from a single cell which is the fertilized egg, and we are formed by repeated divisions of that cell, to make what we are

It evolved very early on, over one million years ago, and has remained the same ever since. How does it work? Well, it’s an enzyme called cyclin-dependent kinase. What it does is, it rises as you go through the cell cycle, and at a low level it makes the DNA copy itself – so you produce from one copy of DNA two copies – and at the higher level, it controls the separation of those copies in the chromosomes to two newly dividing cells.

When you began your research, did you believe that it could lead to a Nobel Prize?

Of course not, no. A long time ago in the 1970s when I was quite young and was a graduate student, I decided that after I’d had a PhD I’d study this problem. I knew it was an important process, but I didn’t know whether we would find the basis and I didn’t know that even if we did, if we’d be able to describe how it worked. Everything did work, and I’m fairly astonished at that, but when I started I just thought if we could find something about it, that would be an advance. But actually, we found out how it all worked, and that’s why the Nobel Prize.

When I started this line of research was not mainstream. The process was thought to be important but nobody was really studying it, well not many people at least. It then became very popular towards the end of my work because people saw we were making big progress. So it wasn’t mainstream but became mainstream.

How do you believe your research is beneficial for mankind?

The benefits come in different forms. One is that it contributes to our culture and civilization, because to understand how we work and how the world works is important. Second, understanding it means you can potentially manipulate and control it, and that ability means you can potentially use it in controlling diseases like cancer. Certainly, the third is that without understanding this you can never approach new therapies and so on for cancer. It’s so critical to cell reproduction. So even if itself doesn’t lead to treatments, developing treatments need to take this research into account. It’s also relevant to other processes like wound healing, and to how we are produces and how we develop. All of these are important, and understanding how they work allows you to see what goes wrong and correct it.

Tell us about your brand new Institute, the Francis Crick Institute.

This is a new institute in central London which I founded and moved into three years ago. It’s a very big institute, it has about 1,300 researchers under a single roof, probably the biggest in Europe or even in the world. It’s called the Francis Crick after the famous scientist. We cover many topics, we don’t have a specific programme. What we’re interested in is how life works and discovering things that are relevant to biomedicine, so we cover everything. And the way I work with this institute is to hire young researchers, not like myself, who will pursue their own agendas. I give them freedom and resources, to look over the horizon rather than at the horizon. Most places work on problems mostly identified by more senior researchers, and usually say the obvious, behind the curve. I want people to look beyond the curve, beyond the horizon, and the best way to do that is to hire excellent young people and to let them create the future.

Are you working on something now, in the research/scientific field? 

So, as we’ve said, control activity of Cyclin-dependent kinase increase as they go through the cycle, which is a new way of looking it, it’s not the current view of it. I’m interested in what controls that to go up in that manner, and how a very low activity can also cause it to do something, but something that it would make it do during high activity. Normally these controls are thought to be either on or off, and what we’re describing is that it’s more variable than that, and I want to know how that’s control and you can switch from a continuous increase into a digital outcome, and the mechanisms underlying all of that.

How was your visit to the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics?

The Institute is really good, I’d heard of it of course having been around for 30 years. It was probably the first biological/biomedical Institute in Cyprus. I visited all of it yesterday, it’s high quality, it’s got highly motivated people, good resources, and serves both basic research and also applications, diagnosis, and so on, and so it has an immediate usefulness to the community as well as long-term use to the community. It’s very impressive for such a small country, so I thought this was an impressive initiative which recognizes that you have to do both basic research and also applied research. Sometimes people thing you should do one or the other, actually you need everything, from beginning to end. Mostly some want to just apply everything. There’s a good metaphor – it’s like building a building taller and taller with bad foundations. You’ve got to invest in the foundations as well as the building, and at the Institute they understand that.

Cyprus  |  health  |  science  |  Sir Paul Nurse  |  Nobel prize  |  cell cycle  |  control  |  cancer  |  research

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