p53 – the guardian of the genome

The p53 protein has a key function in the body’s immune response to cancer. Sir David Lane discovered p53 at the end of the 1970s and has devoted his life in science to researching the protein and putting knowledge of it to clinical use. He is continuing his research with KI as a base.

Professor Sir David Lane. Photo: Ulf Sirborn
Professor Sir David Lane. Photo: Ulf Sirborn

Sir David Lane, Professor of Tumour Suppressor Biology at the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology

The most prominent common denominator for different forms of human cancer is the failure of the p53 protein to function properly. The protein is normally found in all cells, where its role is to discover and prevent genetic mutations that can lead to cancer.

It is described as the “guardian of the genome”, an expression coined by Sir David Lane, who made the important discovery of p53 in the 1970s.

“Understanding more about p53 and trying to clinically exploit this property of tumours has been the theme of my research,” he says. “If we understand what p53 does, we can also understand the fundamentals of cancer.”

An important part of Professor Lane’s research concerns the protein MDM2, which regulates p53.

“We’re exploring if it’s possible to treat cancer by blocking MDM2,” he says. “We’re doing research on peptides, which is exciting. They’re a very good fit, but they also introduce certain problems that must be dealt with, including the matter of stability.”

Another line of research for Professor Lane concerns how p53 could be used for diagnostic purposes.

“We know that the prognosis for cancer patients is more favourable when the disease is detected early. Since changes in p53 are so common in cancer they could be used as a marker.”

Professor Lane is now building his research group at Karolinska Institutet while continuing as Chief Scientist at A*STAR in Singapore.

“It’s fantastic to be at Karolinska Institutet, especially because a lot of interesting work is being done here on p53,” he says.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in “From Cell to Society” 2016.