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Published: 2021-12-02

Research on cells' power plants and mechanisms behind cancer receives funding for five years

NEWS Paulina Wanrooij at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics has been appointed as a 2021 Wallenberg Academy Fellow and will thereby receive research funding on mitochondrial diseases for the next five years. Additionally, another Umeå researcher at the same department, Nasim Sabouri, has received a prolonged five-year period of funding for her research on mechanisms that cause cancer.

Text: Ola Nilsson

“The long-term support that follows from appointment as Wallenberg Academy Fellow grants me and my research team the time and stability to tackle some challenging scientific questions that we would not otherwise have the possibility to take on,” says Paulina Wanrooij. “The appointment is also a confirmation of the relevance and timeliness of our research questions.”

Every year, about 1 in 5,000 children are affected by mitochondrial diseases when our cells' energy power plants, the mitochondria, do not function properly. Paulina Wanrooij will carry out detailed studies of how damage to mitochondrial genes affects the cell and why this can cause premature aging, for example.

Almost all of our genome is located in the nucleus of the cell, but there is also a small amount in our cells’ power plants, the mitochondria. This genome contains vital genes that govern the cell’s energy production. Children who are born with genetic mutations in the mitochondrial genome therefore often suffer from energy deficiency in certain organs, which may lead to muscle weakness, brain damage and organ failure.

New research indicates that the mitochondria also affect other cell functions, such as which genes are active in the cell’s nucleus. Instability in the mitochondrial genome can also trigger the immune system and lead to premature aging.

“I hope my team’s research can uncover new factors and mechanisms related to the signaling of mitochondrial DNA defects,” says Paulina Wanrooij. “This improved understanding of the interplay between mitochondria and the rest of the cell can in the long run contribute to the design of better treatment options for mitochondrial diseases and certain cancers.”

This year, 27 researchers at Swedish universities have been appointed as new Wallenberg Academy Fellows. An additional twelve researchers who have previously received fellowships have been granted a five-year prolongation period. Among them is Nasim Sabouri, who is researching four-stranded DNA in association with cancer-driving genes. Something that will hopefully lead to new and more effective cancer drugs.

Nasim Sabouri's research group is studying a four-stranded structure that is formed when guanine bases from the same or different DNA strands interact with one other. It is called G-quadruplex (G4), and is often found near DNA regions that turn gene activity on or off. G4-DNA has been found both in HIV and in human papillomavirus (HPV), and also in association with cancer-driving genes. This makes the G4 structure a potential target for both antiviral drugs and cancer preparations.

“The previous support I received as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow has enabled the exciting and groundbreaking results that we have now, and another five years of support gives us the opportunity to understand in detail the mechanisms behind how four-stranded DNA structures contribute to cancer,” says Nasim Sabouri.  “For example, we have discovered proteins that have higher specificity for the G4 structure than for the double-stranded DNA helix and will in the coming years study in detail how these proteins regulate G4 structures and thus also understand how G4 structures regulate our cells. When cell regulation no longer functions, the normal cell is then transformed into a cancer cell. Therefore, understanding cell regulation is very important for understanding the origins of cancer.

“The prolonged support also contributes to me being able to continue to recruit inquisitive and creative students from all over the world to Umeå and thereby further increase the quality and competitiveness of our research,” says Nasim Sabouri.

About Wallenberg Academy Fellows

Wallenberg Academy Fellows is the largest private investment in young researchers in Sweden. In addition to providing promising young researchers with long-term resources, which enables them to concentrate on their research, the programme also contributes to an increased internationalization of the Swedish research environment.

The programme was established by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in close collaboration with the five royal academies and 16 Swedish universities in 2012. The universities nominate researchers to the programme, the academies evaluate the candidates and present the most promising researchers to the Foundation, who then make the final selection. Thereafter, the universities take long-term responsibility for the activities of the selected researchers. After the end of the first period, researchers have the opportunity to apply for support for another five years of funding.

Read more at the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation


Paulina Wanrooij
Research fellow
Nasim Sabouri
Associate professor