Structure of Ral (pink) binding to RLIP(grey) solved by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy

Two biochemists have recently won an MRC grant to investigate potential targets in the treatment of cancer.

These types of studies are helping by homing in on a specific aspect at the molecular level: the mechanism of how one protein binds to another and with what effect.

Dr Helen Mott

Drs Helen Mott and Darerca Owen in the Department of Biochemistry are studying a family of proteins known as RalA and RalB that have recently moved into the limelight as ‘key offenders’ in the progression of normal cells to cancerous cells.

Although discovered 20 years ago, comparatively little is known of the interactions of RalA and RalB with other proteins. ‘Being awarded our first MRC Project Grant has meant that we can focus on the binding of RalB to a protein known as RLIP’, said Dr Mott, who has previously been funded through both a Training Fellowship and a Career Development Award from the MRC. ‘We’re interested in how they bind together at the molecular level and which regions are particularly important for interaction – the ‘hotspots’ – as these are potential targets for drug design,’ explained Dr Owen. ‘If you can target the hotspots, you might be able to interrupt the interaction.’

With their strong track record in solving the structures of proteins using nuclear magnetic resonance technology and molecular biology expertise, Drs Mott and Owen plan to design mutants to inhibit binding and determine what effect this has on cell function. ‘Because the signalling networks that govern a cell are enormous, it’s really difficult to tease out how everything fits together,’ explained Dr Mott. ‘These types of studies are helping by homing in on a specific aspect at the molecular level: the mechanism of how one protein binds to another and with what effect.’

For more information, please contact Dr Helen Mott ( or Dr Darerca Owen ( at the Department of Biochemistry.


Medical Research Council

The mission of the Medical Research Council (MRC) is to support the best research and training to improve human health. With a portfolio that encompasses MRC Units and Institutes, universities and hospitals, the MRC funds research that ranges from fundamental molecular biology through animal models and clinical research to population studies.


Much of what the MRC does is in conjunction with the Health Departments in England and the devolved administrations, the National Health Service, other research councils, industry and charities. This research has led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and has benefited millions of people in the UK and around the world. But the benefits go beyond improvements in health care. A study commissioned by the University of Cambridge and others shows that the University’s impact on the economy is considerable. MRC-supported research in life sciences is a substantial contributor to this.

  • Each year, the MRC spends more than £60 million supporting the eight MRC research establishments in Cambridge (comprising over 1000 scientists and students), many of which work in partnership with research groups in the University.
  • The planned building of the new MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) will be the flagship of the newly expanded Cambridge Biomedical Campus and includes space for research groups from the Clinical School.
  • Neuroscience, cancer and metabolic science are important research areas in Cambridge: the MRC recently awarded £2 million to Professor Carol Brayne to study healthy life and cognition across generations and £1 million to Professor Ashok Venkitaraman towards the new Cambridge Molecular Therapeutics Programme. Much of the research in the new Institute of Metabolic Science is funded by the MRC.
  • In the past two financial years alone, the MRC has awarded 58 grants and fellowships to the University worth over £40 million, including many for fundamental science such as the recent grant to Drs Helen Mott and Darerca Owen.

The MRC is now particularly keen to encourage ambitious longer term proposals (for up to five years), both from established researchers and from those new to the MRC. Following the recent settlement for the science budget, MRC funding is set to increase to £682 million a year by 2010, as part of the alignment with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and other public sector funders. Through a single health research strategy, the MRC will be able to translate scientific findings into benefits for patients as quickly as possible, as well as continuing to attract international investment and fuel the ever-growing knowledge economy.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.