What happens inside a cell when cancer forms? While some cancers can be inherited, most are caused by mutations in cells that are then passed on during cell division. The inner workings of those changes have been the research focus of Sir Mike Stratton, professor and director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and this year’s Sixth Annual McNair Symposium Distinguished Lecturer at Baylor College of Medicine.

The symposium was created by The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation with a focus on collaboration and sharing of research among those who have been named McNair Scholars.

Stratton, a Fellow of the Royal Society who was Knighted by the Queen in 2013 as well as chief executive officer of the Wellcome Genome Campus, will present “Signatures of Mutational Processes” on Friday, May 5, at 11 a.m. in Cullen Auditorium at Baylor.

Stratton’s talk will review the mutational signatures found across cancer and consider the underlying mutational processes that occur. Focusing on somatic mutations (alteration acquired by a cell that can be passed to the progeny of the mutated cell in the course of cell division), he will discuss the use of large-scale cancer genome sequencing to find insights into these mutational processes by looking to the mutational signatures that are left behind on the cancer genome. 

Stratton’s early research focused on inherited susceptibility. He mapped and identified the major high-risk breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA2 and subsequently a series of moderate-risk breast cancer and other cancer susceptibility genes.

In 2000 he initiated the Cancer Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which conducts systematic genome-wide searches for somatic mutations in human cancer. Through these studies he discovered somatic mutations of the BRAF gene in malignant melanoma and several other mutated cancer genes in lung, renal, breast and other cancers. He has described the basic patterns of somatic mutation in cancer genomes revealing underlying DNA mutational and repair processes.

The McNair Scholars Program was founded in 2007 by The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation to recruit and enable world-class physician and scientific scholars to conduct collaborative and transformative biomedical research in breast and pancreatic cancer, type 1 diabetes and the neurosciences.

The latest two McNair Scholars named at Baylor are Dr. Bing Zhang, professor of molecular and human genetics and a member of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center, and Dr. Nuo Li, assistant professor of neuroscience. There are currently 20 McNair Scholars and have been 5 previous McNair Scholars for a total of 25 at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Heart Institute, Texas Children’s, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer and Menninger Clinic since the program’s creation.