Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bruce Ponder Hunting For Cancer Genes

Bruce Ponder: The gene hunter

The top cancer scientist tells Polly Curtis about his dogged research to find out how the disease strikes

Tuesday April 3, 2007
The Guardian

Professor of oncology Bruce Ponder inside the Li Ka Shing Centre, the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute. Photograph: Graham Turner

The view from Bruce Ponder's office looks like an artist's impression. A block of impossibly green grass, the crisp angles of new buildings and a sculpture still shiny and new. When the building was being designed, he was asked to pick out the sculpture, but after a while needed some help because it all looked like "chunks of metal" to him.
The Taichi Arch - Gate of Health, a large bronze by the Chinese master Ju Ming, stands outside the entrance to the newly opened Li Ka Shing Centre, home of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute on the Cambridge biomedical c ampus, next to Addenbrooke's Hospital. A symbol of the graceful coordination of tai chi is appropriate for the new facility, which brings together scientists and doctors from a broad spectrum of disciplines to unravel the many mysteries of how cancer kills.

Ponder, the new institute's director, is professor and head of the university's department of oncology, and co-director of two other centres on the campus - a cancer research institute and a centre for epidemiological studies of diseases. Until the new centre was ready, he moved between the different centres, at one point working from four offices. Today, he has consolidated what almost amounts to an empire. The aim is to find out how cancer works and, of course, a cure. His angle is the genetics of cancer: how we inherit a risk of developing different cancers.

Ponder's career started in medicine as a doctor, swinging from clinical work to laboratory work - unusual for the time. He had to fight for funding, as well as to be taken seriously as both a doctor and a scientist.

After general medicine and a PhD in molecular biology, he trained for a year in oncology in the US. "With cancer you have the whole spectrum of medicine," he says. "From some poor old guy with cancer of the oesophagus, who would like to die at home and how can you support him and palliate him, to cancer being the outstanding problem in biology. What cancer is, I think, is a breakdown in the way tissues are organised ... If one understood the basic biology, you might understand something about treatments."

With such broad interests, it sounds like people didn't know what box to put him in. "I didn't know what box to put myself in," he laughs. He ended up working in a bladder unit - as good a place as any to examine the way a cancer develops in a lining, he thought. One day, they were a bit busy next door in the thyroid cancer unit, so he mucked in. The move changed his life. He discovered two thick files, case notes, on families who had experienced thyroid cancer again and again through the generations.

The understanding of genetics was in its infancy and very few people were making the link between inherited genetic mutations and cancers, writing off the patterns within families as being caused by shared environment. But the link with thyroid cancer - a very rare cancer - was too strong. It was 1980, and he set out to find the gene.

"Not many of us have big discoveries," he says, but the mapping of the MEN2 gene, responsible for hereditary patterns of thyroid cancer, was his. It was the first discovery of a predisposing gene linked to a form of cancer in the UK. Six years later, they found the gene itself. "With today's technology it wouldn't take much more than six weeks," he says. His group developed the test now used in all families where thyroid cancer is identified to work out the probability of relatives being diagnosed.

The next step

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