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Manhunt for an elusive mutant gene

- Wits University

Chris Mathew is a Distinguished Professor in the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Distinguished Professor Chris Mathew is on a mission to find the specific gene that causes cancer of the oesophagus, which is common among black African populations in southern and East Africa.

While many epidemiological studies have been done to establish the cause of this cancer – which include tobacco-smoking, alcohol use, smoke inhalation from home cooking fires, poor nutrition and fungal-contaminated maize – no single major cause has yet been identified.

Cancer of the oesophagus has a poor prognosis.

“A major problem is that by the time patients come to the clinics, the cancer is often advanced and the tumour partially blocks the oesophagus, making it difficult to swallow. Patients are extremely thin, and at this stage the cancer is very difficult to cure,” says Mathew.

Mathew is from the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at King’s College, London, where he will continue his work, sharing his time between there and Wits. He has been researching new approaches to accessing the Sub-Saharan oesophageal cancer genome for several years.

Joining Wits as a Distinguished Professor in the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience in February 2015, Mathew will be building a research group of postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students to develop an internationally competitive research programme on the genetics of African cancers.

“Because I am South African, I was always aware of this cancer,” says Mathew.

“We think there are genetic factors in these populations that make them more susceptible to oesophageal cancer, and that the combination of genes and particular environmental exposures triggers its development.”

Working with colleagues at Wits and the National Health Laboratory Sciences, his research group will go on a nationwide hunt, aiming to scan the entire genomes of 2000 cancer patients to look for genes that increase the risk of this cancer.

“We will look for inherited genetic variants in patients that increase cancer susceptibility, and we will sequence the DNA of the tumours from the patients to look for mutations in the tumour cells which contribute to cancer development,” says Mathew.

“We are building partnerships with the International Cancer Genome Consortium who will help us to understand the molecular pathways that are driving this cancer and train a new generation of African scientists in cancer genomics,” he explains.