Núria López-Bigas: "We look for cancer driver genes in tumours from patients"

<p>Núria López-Bigas stars the ninth video of the "Meet Our Scientists" series</p>
Núria López-Bigas stars the ninth video of the "Meet Our Scientists" series

In the video "Looking for a needle in a haystack", ICREA researcher at IRB Barcelona describes her work at the front of the Biomedical Genomics laboratory.

The group’s interests range from deciphering the basic biology of cancer to the development of useful tools for the diagnosis and personalised treatment of patients.

Núria López-Bigas (born in Monistrol de Montserrat, Barcelona, ​​1975) fine tunes computational methods and performs lab experiments seeking to identify cancer driver genes. Her team comprises 14 members, including informatics engineers, biologists, mathematicians and physicians. Holding a world globe to make her point in the video, this researcher comments that interdisciplinarity is needed for this type of study, and goes on to say that "science is global and we have to make sure that ours is meaningful".

López-Bigas stars in the ninth video of the series "Meet Our Scientists", which seeks to introduce society to the researchers that work at IRB Barcelona and explain the work that they do. This year the series is supported by the “Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología” (FECYT).

Darwin’s theory reflected tumours

The Biomedical Genomics lab looks for mutational patterns in various kinds of tumour from thousands of patients. "We start off with the idea that tumours follow a process of Darwinian evolution", she says.

Tumours accumulate many mutations but they do not all have the same effect. "In fact, of the thousands of mutations that we can find, perhaps only two, three or four are critical to transform a normal cell into a tumoural cell". The lab looks for those mutations that confer an advantage to cell proliferation, division and evasion of regulatory mechanisms. "We look for what is referred to in evolution as positive selection," she explains. Their findings are published on a public access website (https://www.intogen.org).


The dark side of the genome

To date, research into identifying cancer driver genes has been focused on genome sequencing, that is to say, registering the sequences of genes that code for proteins. However, these sequences account for only 2% of the whole genome. These researchers question whether cancer driver mutations can be found among the other 98%. "We believe that these driver mutations are there. We are applying our methods to look at this extensive and as yet unknown part of the genome," she explains. This is addressed through a Consolidator Grant awarded to Nuria López-Bigas by the European Research Council (ERC). The team also works in coordination with and forms a part of several international consortia devoted to the analysis and interpretation of genomic data collected from tumours.

Personalised medicine

"Working in cancer is very interesting for two reasons, the first is discovering new knowledge about basic cancer biology and the second is because such discoveries have the potential to be adapted to better treatments against the disease," she explains.

It is increasing more common to sequence the patients’ genomes to identify mutations. However, oncologists need tools to be able to interpret the meaning of the mutations and to distinguish those that are important from those that are not. "We want to develop methods to facilitate the medical interpretation of mutations and to help oncologists choose the most suitable treatment for each patient. This is how we contribute to furthering personalised medicine for cancer".

The "Meet Our Scientists" videos, which have subtitles in English, Catalan and Spanish, can be watched on IRB Barcelona’s YouTube channel and on the institute’s website.