Research towards treatment of a global health threat: ”A very promising field has been opened for us.”

Professor Camilla Björkegren and her research team have focused for a long time on vital mechanisms that enable human cell DNA replication without triggering permanent mutations. And in a new project, the team intends to develop its basic research so that it can lead to improved hepatitis B treatments.

During cell division, 46 chromosomes in the original cell are replicated so that daughter cells can get a complete copy of them and thus of the entire genome. Replication is a complicated process, and many molecular mechanisms exist to ensure that replication occurs without damaging DNA.

For many years, Björkegren and her team have been analyzing such mechanisms by studying yeast cells. For example, the team contributed significantly to increasing knowledge about structural maintenance of chromosomes (SMC) proteins and specifically, the SMC5/6 complex. The SMC5/6 complex helps to (i) maintain the chromosomes structure when replicating and (ii) repair chromosome damage.

All along, one of the team’s long-term goals has been to develop a knowledge foundation for new cancer treatments. Now, another interesting area of ​​application has emerged. Current research results from another team show that the SMC5/6 complex is also crucial for the body’s defense against the hepatitis B virus. To trigger infection, the virus must break down SMC5/6. So Björkegren and her team launched a CIMED-supported project to find ways to strengthen defense of the SMC5/6 complex against the virus – and thus fight the infection.

”Our lab has a head start since we already have good methods for studying the SMC5/6 complex. Consequently, we can now immediately start investigating how it inhibits duplication of the virus.”

The hepatitis B virus has infected about 400 million people worldwide. The infection increases risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer, and leads to considerable morbidity and mortality. Existing treatments focus on suppressing inflammation and reducing harmful effects. There is still no treatment that cures the infection.

”Our goal is to find ways to inhibit virus-triggered SMC5/6 degradation and thus inhibit infection. Maybe drugs can be developed for making people totally virus free!”

Camilla Björkegren is a professor in cell and tumor biology in the Department of Bioscience and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

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Camilla Björkegren