Prestigious research award for Nottingham cancer cell biologist

28 Jan 2010 18:01:57.940


An internationally-acclaimed University of Nottingham scientist has won a prestigious Fellowship award to help solve one of the mysteries of cell biology.

Professor Anne Willis, a pioneering expert in Cancer Cell Biology, is to receive a Professorial Fellowship of around £750,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It will allow her to focus full time on research into how cells re-programme themselves to repair damage to their DNA from stresses such as UV radiation.

Professor Willis is setting up a five year study into a little-known mechanism by which damaged cells are able to select the best repair process for the particular damage they have suffered. The results are expected to shed light on important aspects of cellular behaviour in response to different stresses. Alterations in protein synthesis are associated with all varieties of cancer as well as many other common diseases.

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As part of their natural defence against stresses such as UV radiation, cells 'shut down' and virtually stop making proteins - the molecules that act as the main workhorses of cells and carry out most of the reactions and processes. But this poses a problem. If normal protein synthesis is switched off, how do cells make the proteins they need to repair any damage they have suffered?

Professor Willis's team has found that when they deliberately damaged cells with UV radiation, heat, cold, hypoxia or chemical exposure, the cells used an abnormal way of making proteins to generate the repair kit they needed.  The key to this appears to be that the cells switched to using an alternate set of 'coding molecules' (mRNAs) from that normally used to make proteins. The normal set is circumvented because it is part of the process that has been shut down. But interestingly, the mRNAs used to make proteins to repair UV damage are different from those used to repair other sorts of damage. 

It appears that cells can choose which repair kit to use. But how they do this is unknown. Professor Willis will be exploring whether information is hidden in non-coding parts of the mRNAs that marks them out as appropriate for different responses.

A group of around thirty scientists at the University led by Professor Willis will set up a 'virtual centre' to coordinate a massive screening programme to examine the role of the DNA regulon in the control of gene expression. "What's needed now", she says, "is a large study to analyse this cellular response to stress and work out how cells tailor their protein synthesis to their situation." 

The group will collaborate with scientists at up to fifteen other universities around the UK in the biggest-ever data collection programme in this field. A bioinformatician will be hired to coordinate and analyse the data.

The work could be useful in the field of bio-technology with possible applications in the longer term for the treatment of cancer; for example the selective targeting of cancer tumour cells with tailor-made drugs.

Reacting to her BBSRC Fellowship, Professor Willis said: "I am delighted. This award will help us expand and focus the areas of both cancer research and cell biology in Nottingham to produce an internationally regarded centre of excellence."

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Professor Sir Colin Campbell, said: "This is a hugely prestigious award that signals real excellence in Professor Willis' research."

Professor Nigel Brown, BBSRC Director of Science & Technology, said: "BBSRC only awards one or two Professorial Fellowships each year. Professor Willis receives the only award we are making in 2008. BBSRC Professorial Fellowships are given to world-class bioscientists who can demonstrate a track record of developing new and innovative directions of research and who have the potential to open dramatic and exciting news areas of work.

"Professor Willis has impressive drive and determination. Her plans to establish a centre of excellence will further our understanding, at a fundamental and strategic level, of cellular responses to stress and strengthen the UK's leading global role in this area of research."

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Notes to Editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 70 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THES) World University Rankings.

It provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia.

Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation - School of Pharmacy).

Its students are much in demand from 'blue-chip' employers. Winners of Students in Free Enterprise for four years in succession, and current holder of UK Graduate of the Year, they are accomplished artists, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators and fundraisers. Nottingham graduates consistently excel in business, the media, the arts and sport. Undergraduate and postgraduate degree completion rates are amongst the highest in the United Kingdom.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.


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Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 74 84413  Location: University Park

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