A Harvard scientist just won $3 million for discovering the hidden ‘intelligence’ that defends our cells

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Harvard Medical School/Vimeo

Almost every cell in a human body carries a copy of our genetic code, the DNA that holds the unique biological blueprint for who we are.

That DNA tells our cells what to do. When they divide, that information is copied from one cell to another.

But life is hard on our cells. They become damaged every moment of every day, exposed the radiation of the sun, the heat of our laptops, the chemicals we absorb from air pollution, the alcohol we drink, and more. Aging itself damages them.

This damage can easily become a harmful mutation, causing cells to replicate in an out of control way, leading to disease and cancer. With the constant assault, it’s a wonder this doesn’t happen all the time.

It’s only thanks to a mechanism in our cells that can recognize when something has gone wrong that we aren’t all riddled with cancer.

That mechanism, known as the DNA damage response, functions like an individual intelligent agent, able to monitor when things are going wrong and then try to come up with a way to deal with them.

Understanding that response is a key to dealing with diseases that affect us as we age. It could help us figure out why we lose of our vitality as we grow old and it could transform how we understand cancer, that “emperor of all maladies.” Cell growth is the key to our lives, how we grow and how our bodies repair themselves; cancer is the potentially deadly perversion of that growth.

One of the remarkable properties of nature’s most remarkable molecule, DNA, is self-awareness: it can detect information about its own integrity and transmit that information back to itself.

Discoveries explaining how that mechanism works are so significant that on December 4, geneticist Stephen Elledge was awarded one of five $3 million Breakthrough Prizes in life sciences. These awards, founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, honor research that could transform and perhaps more essentially, extend human life. Elledge, Gregor Mendel Professor of Genetics and Medicine in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and in the Division of Genetics at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has done significant work in this area.

Elledge’s research on the DNA damage response certainly fits the bill. While we’ve thought that cells had some way to respond to damage ever since the 1940s, Elledge has helped reveal the biological components involved in the process.

“One of the remarkable properties of nature’s most remarkable molecule, DNA, is self-awareness: it can detect information about its own integrity and transmit that information back to itself,” Elledge wrote in JAMA after he was awarded a prestigious Lasker award in 2015 for his work.

When this response detects damaged DNA, it can respond in several ways. It may try to repair the damage, but it may also activate the immune system, cause the cell to destroy itself, or trigger a process known as senescence – which helps prevent tumors but is also largely responsible for aging.

While this research was a large part of why Elledge was awarded a Breakthrough Prize, it’s only part of his extensive biology research. As a Harvard press release notes, he and colleagues recently discovered a way to identify every virus a person had ever been exposed to.

Other life sciences Breakthrough Prizes this year were awarded to Harry Knoller for his work understanding how RNA is central to protein synthesis; Roeland Nusse for research on a pathway essential for cancer and stem cell biology; Yoshinori Ohsumi, who was also awarded a Nobel Prize this year, for work on cell autophagy; and Huda Yahya Zoghbi for discoveries related to rare disease that help show how neurodegenerative diseases work.