By Matt Barron
Like many children in China during the Cultural
Revolution, Wei Xiao had no access to classes or books,
except Chairman Mao’s infamous Red Book. Living in
a Red Guard training camp with parents he rarely saw,
the nine-year-old turned his enquiring mind to stamp
Xiao eventually earned a PhD in microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, where he began to study something more elusive than the rarest of stamps: the mechanisms of DNA repair.
Driven by a lifelong curiosity and desire to unearth what others might miss, the U of S microbiologist has been teasing apart the mysteries of how cells repair damage to DNA. His landmark discoveries could lead to treatments for cancer and for such viral heavyweights as SARS and HIV.
It started 10 years ago with, of all things, a discovery in baker’s yeast. Xiao learned that he could make yeast cells more vulnerable to environmental threats by deleting a particular gene. After isolating two similar genes in humans, Xiao and his team discovered that, when either of these genes was placed in yeast cells containing the deleted gene, cell damage was prevented.
In 2005, he revealed the true nature of these “twin” genes—dubbed “Beauty” and “Beast.” Selected as a Milestone in Canadian Health Research, the research indicated that Beauty helps repair DNA, while Beast battles intruders by multiplying white blood cells and other immune players.
When it’s regulated properly, Beast complements Beauty by encouraging cell division. But when it isn’t, the Beast gene becomes a true beast. “Imagine if human cells were constantly multiplying without an infection,” says Xiao. “That is the hallmark of cancer.”
Xiao is currently experimenting with certain chemical agents and antibodies to halt this process. He hopes it will one day yield early-screening tools and better treatments for cancer.
Having isolated human genes responsible for DNA repair, Xiao recently turned to the plant kingdom with more questions.
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