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A Walk Through the Valley of Cell Death

Dr David Vaux

Dr David Vaux

By Barry Leviny

After three decades, David Vaux’s initial research into apoptosis has led to clinical trials of a potential treatment for leukaemia.

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Many of us, if we’re honest, would like to help find a cure for cancer, or at least a form of it. I’ve recently been talking to someone who may have done just that. It was a long, complicated road and I was keen to hear how he did it.

After finishing medical school, Dr David Vaux embarked on a PhD supervised by Prof Jerry Adams, head of the Molecular Biology Unit at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), Australia’s oldest medical research institute. One day, Adams gave Vaux a tube containing the DNA for a gene called BCL2. He didn’t realise it then, but his work towards a new treatment for a form of cancer had begun.

First, some background. Each chromosome is a double-stranded molecule of DNA that, if stretched out, would be more than 1 cm long. Because chromosomes are so thin, they sometimes break, but our cells usually do a good job of stitching them back together again. Sometimes, but very rarely, two chromosomes happen to break at the same time, and the cell joins them together the wrong way around. The technical term for this is a “chromosomal translocation”.

Researchers in the US noticed that in almost every case of a particular type of blood cancer, the malignant cells had a translocation involving chromosome 18 and chromosome 14. Other scientists found a gene at the broken end of chromosome 18 where it was attached to chromosome 14. They...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.