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Dr. John Thompson

Functional genomics research breakthrough expected to aid agriculture and human health

Breakthrough research findings led by Dr. John Thompson, Biology, have implications for agriculture and human health. Two powerful genes encoding proteins comprising a “switch” for regulating programmed cell death have been discovered. They have “broad application” in combating a range of health concerns, such as cancer, heart disease, glaucoma and Alzheimer’s. Present in both plants and mammals, including humans, the switch “may be a ubiquitous mechanism for controlling cell death,” Dr. Thompson said. “When the switch is on, cells die, and when the switch is off, they grow and proliferate.” Delaying cell death in plants, called senescence, can enhance the shelf life of perishable produce such as fruit, vegetables and flowers. The technology can also be used to increase seed yield and enhance tolerance of plants to environmental stress. Programmed cell death in humans is called apoptosis. With cancer, for example, cells targeted to undergo apoptosis are unable to turn on the death switch, and proliferate to form a tumour. Diseases such as glaucoma are a manifestation of premature apoptosis. “Transgene technology can be used to turn the death switch on and off, and this holds in prospect being able to ameliorate human diseases arising from abnormal apoptosis.”