Dr Benjamin Werner from Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, is one of the next generation of UK science leaders to receive funding through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowships scheme. Dr Werner will receive an award of approximately £1.4 million, which will support a research project looking at the evolutionary dynamics of circular extra-chromosomal DNA (ecDNA) in human cancers.
Dr Werner said:
“With the support of the Future Leaders Fellowship, I will develop a mathematical/computational tool-box that will aim to unravel the evolution of circular ecDNA in cancer, which currently very little is known about.”
In healthy cells, DNA or genetic information is stored in 23 pairs of chromosomes; however, in cancer cells, fragments of DNA can break off and form ring-like structures known as circular ecDNA. In recent years, research has shown circular ecDNA to be a feature of some of the most difficult-to-treat cancers (including types of brain and lung cancer), and their presence is linked to poor prognoses in patients.
When healthy cells divide, the new cells formed (known as daughter cells) inherit a complete set of chromosomes; ecDNA however is not segregated equally, meaning some daughter cells may inherit many copies of ecDNA, while others do not inherit any ecDNA. In this way, a very large cell-to-cell variation of ecDNA builds up, creating extremely genetically diverse tumours, which accelerates tumour evolution, increases aggressiveness and enables tumours to adapt more rapidly to and resist treatments.
Dr Werner added:
“As ecDNA do not follow the usual rules of inheritance by descent during cell division, we cannot apply the methods currently used to measure the evolution of chromosomal DNA in cancer cells. This project will develop the mathematical and computational tools needed to map ecDNA evolutionary processes, allowing us to understand better how ecDNA drive cancer and adapt to treatment. I hope the insights gained from this project will help to inform treatment strategies against ecDNA-containing tumours, to allow for better treatment outcomes for patients in the future.”
The aim of the UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships scheme is to establish the careers of the next generation of world-class British scientists. The investment will enable researchers at universities and businesses to progress their studies quickly by funding essential equipment and paying for researcher wages.
Dr Werner is one of 97 of the UK’s science and research leaders being backed with £113 million, to help bring their innovative ideas from lab to market and provide bold solutions to tackle major global issues ranging from climate change to chronic disease. Each fellowship will last four to seven years.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway, who announced the Future Leaders Fellowships Round 5 yesterday (8th September), said:
“We are putting science and innovation at the heart of our efforts to build back better from the pandemic, empowering our scientific leaders of tomorrow to drive forward game-changing research that could improve all our lives and boost the UK economy.
“Supported by £113m, the Future Leaders Fellowships will equip our most inventive scientists and researchers across the country with the tools to develop and bring their innovations to market quickly - all while helping to secure the UK’s status as a global science superpower.”
UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said:
“I am delighted that UKRI is able to support the next generation of research and innovation leaders through our Future Leaders Fellowship programme.
“The new Fellows announced today will have the support and freedom they need to pursue their research and innovation ideas, delivering new knowledge and understanding and tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time.”