Portrait of Jiri Lukas – University of Copenhagen

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26 September 2016

Portrait of Jiri Lukas

Fernström Prize

Professor Jiri Lukas from the University of Copenhagen is awarded this year’s prestigious Fernström Prize for his pioneering research on cancer. Below you can find out what drives the ambitious scientist who has helped pave the way for modern cancer research.

The Fernström Prize is one of the greatest medical recognitions a scientist can receive. What was your reaction when you were told that you and your colleague Jiri Bartek from the Danish Cancer Society would be awarded this year’s prize?

My initial response was a big surprise, followed (after a short gap, which took me to believe the news) by an equally big delight. I have to confess that it was also followed by a slight worry - let me explain: Big prizes are usually announced in confidence by phone. But during that evening when the Fernström Foundation tried to reach me with the news, I switched off my telephone because we were hosting a guest scientist from Australia. I am not an avid mobile phone user and it was only by chance that I turned it on again a couple of days later and realized that I have almost missed one of the greatest recognitions of my scientific career… Seriously again, I am extremely proud about this recognition and I am very happy to share it with Jiri Bartek, a close colleague of mine. Jiri and I met in the late 1980s back in the Czech Republic (our home country, which we share as well as our first names) and we’ve collaborated ever since even though we happened to be located far and wide throughout our careers: London, Dundee, Oxford and Heidelberg, but then one day, we spontaneously decided to reconvene in Denmark, which in many ways is a very visionary country in terms of science funding policy, and exceptionally welcoming for international scientists.

What drives your research?

There is a very short answer to that question: curiosity. As numerous examples in medical history has already shown us, curiosity coupled to a ‘blue sky research’ (meaning no limits to explore the unknown and follow unexpected observations) are often what brings about the greatest breakthroughs. One of life’s huge mysteries concerns how it is possible to copy human genome without mistakes. The magnitude of this task becomes obvious when we realize that a human body is made of billions of cells, that originate from a single fertilized egg, and that even in an adult human body millions of cells keep dividing at each moment. All these cells must have copied the entire genome during their life span without mistakes despite being literally bombarded with numerous stresses assaults that can damage DNA (including unavoidable sources of DNA damage such as sunlight). Imagining this is simply breath-taking and there can hardly be better example of a research problem, which has a potential to both elucidate the basic principles of life, and at the same time generate information that is almost always bound to help understand cancer and other deceases marked by unstable genomes such as premature ageing, developmental defats, immunological disorders, neurodegeneration.

Can you describe the main areas of your research?

Our primary research area concerns how normal cells duplicate their DNA without errors. We also investigate these processes in cancer cells. Understanding the basic mechanisms and differences between normal cells and cancer cells helps us identify surprising vulnerabilities of the latter, knowledge we can use to develop new strategies for improved diagnostics and treatments for cancer patients. Furthermore, some of our findings have a potential to help clinical oncologists identify the patients who would benefit from currently available treatments based on inflicting DNA damage (such as radiotherapy or many forms of chemotherapy). In other words, we work at the crossroad between several disciplines: cell biology, genetics and cancer research. Our work includes mostly basic research but also elements of translational research, which means that our results can be of future use in the clinical world.”

What is you most important goal?

If I should use a metaphor that occupies my mind these days, I would say that the long-term goal of my research is understanding how much a cancer cell has to pay for the ‘luxury’ of living an immortal life. As a matter of fact, this assertion has some very concrete foundations in our most recent work, where we discovered that although cancer cells indeed have the potential to grow and divide indefinitely, it comes at the cost of consuming essential proteins that protect the their genomes against various forms of DNA damage. We have identified several of such limiting proteins and showed that certain drugs (including those that are already used in the clinic) can exploit these limits and effectively kill cancer cells. In other words, nothing in life comes ‘free of charge’, and cancer cells are no exceptions from this rule: they do gain the ‘luxury’ of growth advantage in the process of cancer transformation, yet while doing so they make themselves selectively vulnerable. And this is the point where studying cellular responses to DNA damage can help to uncover ‘molecular Achilles heels’ and use them as tools to diagnose cancer vulnerabilities and direct efficient treatment. This is a fascinating challenge, into which we put a great deal of effort,” says Jiri Lukas.

The Fernström Prize is awarded by the Fernströmstiftelsen. It was established in 1978 by Eric K. Fernström in support of medical research and it is awarded annually during Research Day at Lund University.

Read more about the Fernström Prize 2016 here.

Professor Jiri Lukas, mail: jiri.lukas@cpr.ku.dk, mobile: +45 23 26 82 70