Trinity Chemist Recognised for Shedding Light on Mechanics of DNA Damage

Posted on: 25 May 2016

Emeritus Professor John Kelly, from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Chemistry, has been recognised for his part in decades-long research that has helped shed light, quite literally, on the precise mechanisms of DNA damage.

Professor Kelly is a recipient of the 2016 Rita and John Cornforth Award, along with his collaborators Professor Christine Cardin, University of Reading, and Dr Susan Quinn, University College Dublin.

The award, which places an emphasis on the importance of collaboration in scientific research, is handed out annually by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Professor Kelly said: “I am delighted that our collaboration has been recognised with this award. My interests have always involved exploring photochemical reactions, and to fully understand the processes occurring from the initial absorption of a photon to the formation of a permanent product."

"The roots of our work go back to the 1980s when we started an ambitious project with Dan Bradley and David McConnell to target the reactions that take place in DNA.”

The Dublin-Reading DNA Consortium use specially synthesised molecules to see how – and exactly where – they bind to DNA. The reactions usually involve short-lived chemical species (such as ‘free radicals’), which are damaging to DNA and cells inside the body. The reactions often last for mere picoseconds (a billion times faster than a millisecond).

Due to these very narrowest windows of opportunity, specialist crystallography and laser technology techniques are required to provide the all-important series of snapshots that illuminate what is really taking place.

Working in the world-leading Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has recently enabled the scientists to follow the vibrations of excited molecules in DNA crystals, so as to follow the transit of the electrons that lead to DNA damage.

That most recent breakthrough also opens the door for studies looking at direct UV excitation of DNA in crystals, which should help us gain an understanding of the processes that cause DNA photo-damage. 

It should also help related research in the fields of cancer medicine and drug development, as visible light irradiation of the compound in cancer cells leads to their destruction (as has recently been demonstrated by the Trinity groups of Professor Thorri Gunnlaugsson and Clive Williams).

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