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A mysterious gene in the intestines

A mysterious gene in the intestines

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Postdoc Nathalie Vaes would like to find out all about the role that one specific gene plays in intestinal cancer.

It all started in 2009, when Maastricht researcher Veerle Melotte discovered a gene that appeared to be suitable as a biomarker - or early detection - for colon cancer. Many biomarkers end up being forgotten about, but not this one: NDRG4 was included in an American colon cancer test. When the results of this test are positive, an additional test follows. Last year, 800 thousand Americans were screened using this method.

But what does the gene actually do in the intestine? This is what Nathalie Vaes researched for her PhD; she sent her thesis to the reading committee three weeks ago.

There appears to be something mysterious about this gene. “Simply put, the intestine has two layers: the intestinal wall or epithelium, where food passes over, and the deeper-lying muscle layer. Colon cancer always starts in the epithelium, so you would expect to find the biomarker gene in that layer, more so because it can be found in the bowel discharge. But this appears not to be the case: NDRG4 is hidden in the muscle layer. More specifically, in its nervous system. We are the first to have shown this.”

Well, you can forget that then, colleagues initially said. In that case, something is wrong and that gene was most likely discovered just by chance and is unreliable as a biomarker. “Sometimes colleagues are right, but sometimes they are not. At times like that, you have to stand strong and continue on the path you have chosen.”

“In our follow-up research we even discovered that the gene has a protective function. If you remove it, the tumour grows even faster. How this is possible, we don't know yet. It would be cool to unravel it, because then you could develop a therapy.”

But the question still remains: how can the gene end up in the bowel discharge if it is hidden at such a depth in the intestinal layer? “This too is completely unfamiliar territory, and I would like to find out all about this.”

Unfortunately you are not often given that chance as a researcher, she says. “You are usually forced to put blinkers on. Funding parties want discoveries to be applied as quickly as possible in the clinic. You don't have the time to completely unravel a mechanism.”

She suddenly starts to leaf through a notebook. “I once came upon a quote by French mathematician Henri Pointcaré, which I feel is very apt: “It’s through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

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