Division of
Natural and Applied Sciences

Research offers new insight into cancer development

An international team of researchers including Duke Kunshan Professor Ferdinand Kappes has advanced understanding on the role of the DEK protein, a unique human DNA interacting protein, in the cellular cycle.

Their study, published in The Journal of Cell Science, an internationally renowned magazine in the field of cell biology, is a step forward in revealing the protein’s role in cell regeneration, which could lead to developing novel diagnosis methods and treatments for cancer. It also contributes to our general understanding of the fundamental process of cell regeneration, which is central to life.

Ferdinand Kappes, associate professor of biology at Duke Kunshan University

“This is a significant step forward in creating a blueprint for this protein that appears to play an important role in maintaining cell health,” said Kappes, an associate professor of biology at DKU.

“Building on previous research, it adds another piece to the complex puzzle of cell regeneration and the development of tumours,” he added.

Kappes worked on the project with: Agnieszka Pierzynska-Mach and Alberto Diaspro, from the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia, in Genoa, Italy; Christina Czada, Christopher Vogel, Eva Gwosch, Xenia Osswald and Denis Bartoschek, from the University of Konstanz, in Konstanz, Germany; and Elisa Ferrando-May, from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), in Heidelberg, Germany.

The team used advanced microscopy techniques to examine DEK proteins during the regeneration cycle of a cell, focusing on an important period towards the end of the process that is crucial for duplication of “difficult” DNA regions in our genome. They found that in healthy cells, DEK gathered in clusters during this period, while in aggressive cancer cells particles of the protein did not behave in the same manner.

The findings, featured as a research highlight in the journal, offer a potential pathway for identifying healthy versus cancerous cells, according to Kappes, who has been studying the role of DEK proteins in the cell cycle since his undergraduate degree and is a leader in knowledge on the subject.

“It offers a substantial advancement in understanding of the DEK protein’s role in regeneration and maintaining a healthy cell,” he said.

The next step in the team’s research will be to compare more healthy and diseased cells to observe if there is a clear difference in DEK clustering between them. This could open a new avenue to detecting cancers at an early stage, he said, as well as potentially leading to fresh treatment methods that would involve altering the behaviour of DEK proteins within a cell.

While not the primary focus of the research, it could also advance understanding of the ageing process, which is a result of accumulated cell damage caused during the regeneration process.

“If you think of DEK as a building, we have the structure and we know the rooms,” said Kappes. “This research is helping to add the furniture, so that eventually we will have a full floor plan.”

Besides the science aspects itself, Kappes also highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts. “This project was born out of joint and passionate interest in DEK and working with such wonderful individuals across continents and time zones made this at times difficult project truly enjoyable,” he added.