Five minutes with a Fellow – Dr Guillermo Burgos Barragan

Dr Guillermo Burgos Barragan in the lab

I was 12 the day I decided to dedicate my life to cancer research. My father died of brain cancer and my greatest ambition was to do something about it. This led me to the world of biology and science, which captivated me and convinced me further that this is what I wanted to do in the future.

Thus in 2012, after completing a BSc in Biology in Seville (Spain), I came to Cambridge to investigate the molecular biology of cancer. Since then, I have worked in the lab of Dr KJ Patel, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where I completed my PhD last year.

My research focuses on the origins of the DNA mutations that cause cancer. Environmental sources of mutations, such as cigarette smoke or sunlight are widely recognized. However, it is far less appreciated that a substantial source of mutation stems from our own metabolism. The processes that convert food and drink into building blocks also generate molecules that damage our DNA and cause mutations. One of these molecules is formaldehyde, a widely used preservative and known carcinogen. Work I did during my PhD helped to unveil that formaldehyde is produced within us at sufficient amounts to pose a significant threat to our DNA. For this reason, our cells possess two lines of defense against this molecule. Firstly, formaldehyde can be detoxified. And secondly, DNA damage caused by formaldehyde can be fixed by a DNA repair system.

Later on I discovered that, surprisingly, a proportion of our endogenous formaldehyde is derived from a vitamin: folate or vitamin B9. This vitamin is an essential nutrient that we need to make the building blocks of life, such as DNA. Furthermore, I found that formaldehyde detoxification converts this toxin into a benign molecule that is used to make DNA and amino acids. In other words, formaldehyde is recycled and converted into something useful. Therefore, both folate and formaldehyde appear to have two faces: a good side, because they are used to make molecules that cells need to live and grow, and a bad side, because formaldehyde can damage DNA.

These findings suggest that we might be able to control the levels of endogenous formaldehyde to some extent by controlling our diet. This might help to reduce the occurrence of DNA mutations, especially in people with Fanconi anemia, a disease caused by genetic defects in the DNA repair system that protects against formaldehyde. The same defects are found in some types of cancer, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancers, suggesting a potential therapeutic strategy by which these cancers might be selectively killed by folate.

Currently, I am working to address these questions, and I am enormously grateful to Trinity Hall for supporting me in this endeavor. In addition to the financial support, my Research Fellowship has provided me with a unique environment to grow as a scientist and as a person. My experience during my first seven months in Trinity Hall has been great, full of nice interactions with Fellows, postdocs, staff members and students, usually accompanied by excellent food and superb wine. I look forward to what is yet to come!

Dr Guillermo Burgos Barragan
Research Fellow in Molecular Biology

This article was first published in the spring 2018 edition of Front Court.