This funding, called the Starting Grant, is being awarded for the first time by the newly-established research funding body, the European Research Council (ERC). The aim of the ERC is to promote scientific excellence in Europe by supporting the best researchers with relatively large research grants. Only a small percentage of nearly 10 000 researchers who submitted an application last spring was successful.
“This grant means that we are regarded as occupying the absolute cutting edge of European research in our field, and it is important for both the Sahlgrenska Academy and Göteborg University. For me personally the grant means that I can focus more closely on my research during the next five years and expand my research team,” says Associate Professor Martin Bergö.
Martin Bergö is studying two different diseases: cancer and accelerated ageing (progeria). Cancer is a common disease whilst progeria is a rare genetic disease. Children with progeria are born normal but show premature signs of ageing; they stop growing, lose their hair and develop cardiovascular diseases. They seldom survive beyond the age of 16. At present there is no treatment, but Martin Bergö has, together with a research team in the USA, identified a new treatment strategy which is currently being tested on children with progeria. The research has also provided a new genetic method of studying the underlying mechanisms and the treatment of cancer.
“My vision is that the research will lead to a better understanding of the causes of cancer and progeria and to find new treatments. We also hope that our studies into progeria will provide us with new information about the factors that govern normal ageing,” adds Martin Bergö.
What is the link between cancer and progeria? Both diseases are caused by mutations in what is known as a CAAX protein. Martin Bergö’s research has gone a step further and shown that both diseases can be treated with the same type of drug. The CAAX proteins that cause progeria and cancer are transported to a variety of intracellular locations. The transport of CAAX proteins is regulated by a number of enzymes. Martin Bergö is testing the hypothesis that cancer and progeria can be treated by using drugs that block some of these enzymes. The aim of treatment is to prevent the mutated CAAX proteins being transported to the locations within the cell where they cause damage.
To test this hypothesis, the research team has developed genetically modified mice that develop progeria and various forms of cancer. The unique aspect of the group’s mouse models is that it is also possible to stop the production of the enzymes that govern the transport of the mutated CAAX proteins.
“When we stopped the production of one of the enzymes, the rate of tumour development dropped sharply in mice with cancer, and there are early indications that we can reduce the incidence of bone fractures which are common in mice with progeria. But even if our research suggests that drugs that block these enzymes can be effective future treatment for both diseases, there is much research left to do. Therefore, the money from the ERC is extremely welcome,” says Martin Bergö.
Martin Bergö studied medicine in Umeå and defended his doctoral thesis in medical biochemistry in 1998. Following his doctorate he was recruited for postdoctoral training at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco, USA, where he spent five very productive years. For the past 3 years Martin Bergö has lived in Kungsbacka outside Göteborg and has led a research team at the Wallenberg Laboratory, Sahlgrenska Academy at Göteborg University.