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Barcelona has consolidated its place as the leading city in cancer and epigenetics research in southern Europe, with 40 groups of scientists working in this discipline. For the fifth year running, B·Debate, an initiative of Biocat and the “la Caixa” Foundation, brought together national and international experts in cancer and epigenetics this month at CosmoCaixa to discuss the second leading cause of death worldwide.

The Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC) and the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute (IJC) headed up the fifth annual Barcelona Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer (BCEC). With the title “Epigenetic mechanisms in health and disease”, this year’s conference featured the heads of the most important research centers in Europe, including Susan Gasser, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Switzerland, and Wendy Bickmore, director of the Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine (Scotland).


A new era. Understanding DNA in 3-D

Each human cell contains two meters of genetic information. Certain mutations can lead to diseases like cancer, when normal cells escape from the normal balance of cell control and grow uncontrollably. In addition to genetic anomalies, the way these genes are expressed (epigenetics) in conjunction with environmental factors like smoking, eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, are other elements that can cause cancer.

So far, scientists have researched these genetic and epigenetic mechanisms in two dimensions. Now, however, they want to know the three-dimensional structure inside the cell nucleus. For example, to understand what changes occur to how the DNA is organized and regulated when a tumor cell migrates from one part of the body to another, also known as metastasis. This new knowledge will help better understand cancer and all its mechanisms to develop new oncology treatments, and to provide personalized medicine that adapts to each specific patient and their type of tumor.


A cutting-edge area in Catalonia

The BCEC hosted by B·Debate, an initiative of Biocat and the “la Caixa” Foundation, is promoted by the five research centers in Catalonia in this field: Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Institute of Predictive and Personalized Medicine of Cancer (IMPPC), Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program (PEBC) at the Bellvitge Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IDIBELL), Institute for Biomedical Research (IRB Barcelona), IBMB-CSIC and IJC.

These events have helped spread the most cutting-edge knowledge in the field of cancer and have led to collaborations between Catalan and international scientists, as well as attracting benchmark foreign scientists to work at Catalan research centers. Previous editions of BCEC focused on the epigenetic mechanisms most commonly involved in gene expression, like DNA methylation and histone acetylation. Over these years, the most renowned cancer researchers have participated in the B·Debate session. To give just a few examples: John Dick, who discovered cancer stem cells, and Rick Young, a pioneer in the three-dimensional architecture of chromosomes and genes whose name always comes up when speculating who will win the next Nobel prize.

In Catalonia alone, 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are likely to develop cancer at some point in their life, according to data from the Catalan Ministry of Health. More than 20,000 men and nearly 14,000 women are currently suffering from cancer. On a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 12 million people will die of cancer by 2030.


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