Taking shortcuts to new virus and cancer treatments

Leif Andersson

Leif Andersson is a professor at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Microbiology and lead scientist for the research project.

Photograph: Mikael Wallerstedt

The growth of viruses and tumours can be slowed by turning off a specific gene. The researchers behind this discovery are now turning their attention to studying how this mechanism works. They hope to develop new treatments for infectious diseases and cancer.

Today, we know that there are around 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. A research project at Uppsala University is now attempting to learn as much as possible about a gene believed to play an important role in our immune defences. Gene ZC3H11A codes for what is known as a zinc finger protein and must have been evolutionarily important since it is found in all vertebrates.

To find out how this gene and its protein are important, the researchers used the gene scissor CRISPR/Cas9 technique to create cell lines without the gene. They discovered that in the modified cells, several disease-causing viruses had difficulty multiplying. Why some viruses need the gene to reproduce is something that will be studied in more detail.

Human cells infected with an adenovirus
Human cells infected with an adenovirus. ZC3H11A (green) genes are in the areas in the cell nucleus (blue) where adenovirus replicates (red). Photo: Shady Younis

Knock out the gene during an infection

“The long-term goal for the project is to understand how ZC3H11A works and how viruses integrate with it. The idea is to knock out the gene during the virus infection and to see if antiviral medications can be developed,” says Leif Andersson, professor at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Microbiology and lead scientist for the research project.

The project intends to develop substances that influence the function of the protein that ZC3H11A codes for. It could even open up new opportunities for treating cancer. The researchers have namely shown in studies of both human tumour cells and mouse models that the growth of tumour cells slows when ZC3H11A is inactivated. The project will also study how this works.

MAJOR GRANT TO THE RESEARCH PROJECT

Leif Andersson, professor at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Microbiology, is the main applicant for the three-year project “Development of new therapeutic strategies based on the discovery of ZC3H11A – a stress-induced protein required for efficient virus growth”, which was awarded a grant of SEK 25 million from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

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