No sooner have the clocks gone forward than scientists have shed new light on the link between our biological clocks and DNA damage repair processes, essential in protecting our cells from cancer.

Studies at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute co-funded by Breast Cancer Campaign, show that a biological clock protein called HCLK2 has an unexpected role in controlling the response of our cells to DNA damage.

Published online in Nature Cell Biology* today (Sunday), the results build on recent studies that have demonstrated a link between DNA damage response mechanisms and proteins involved in the control of the biological clock.

Dr Simon Boulton, head of the Cancer Research UK DNA Damage Response laboratory and lead author of the research, said: “It’s genuinely surprising that two seemingly unrelated processes should be so intimately linked in our cells.

“It may be that DNA repair could be scheduled by the biological clock to take place at times of reduced metabolic stress. It’s a bit like road works being done overnight when there’s less traffic. But such ideas are, at present, speculative and much more research needs to be carried out to understand the cross-talk between these two processes.”

Our bodies have a number of ways to protect cells from damage to DNA. It’s a vital task because damaged DNA can lead to genetic mutations that may contribute to the development of cancer. The “biological clock” controls the production of various proteins in the body according to the time of day.

It has been previously shown that mutations in genes vital to either the DNA damage response or the biological clock function can give rise to an increased predisposition to cancer.

The researchers discovered a link between a “clock protein” and DNA repair using the model organism, the nematode worm**. Following on from this work, they demonstrated that the human version of the protein, HCLK2, directly interacts with factors that control the cellular responses to damaged DNA.

The molecular link between proteins from these two seemingly distinct processes now sheds light on why deregulation of the biological clock can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s fascinating to think that our bodies’ ability to repair damaged DNA could be run by the biological clock in our brains. Proteins such as HCLK2 that are involved in our body clocks may also, therefore, have an effect on our risk of cancer and work in this area may eventually lead to improved methods of cancer treatment.”

Pamela Goldberg, chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, said: “Breast Cancer Campaign is delighted to support Dr Boulton’s ground breaking research. It’s vital that we identify cancer susceptibility genes and this newly discovered candidate has the potential to be involved in a whole range of cancers. We eagerly await Dr Boulton’s future studies to determine if this gene plays a role in breast cancer.”


For media enquiries please contact Michael Regnier in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8309 or, out of hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264059.


  • Collis, S., Barber, L., Clark, A., Martin, J., Ward, J., & Boulton, S. (2007). HCLK2 is essential for the mammalian S-phase checkpoint and impacts on Chk1 stability Nature Cell Biology, 9 (4), 391-401 DOI: 10.1038/ncb1555


* Nature Cell Biology – doi.10.1038/ncb1555

** Nematode worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) are very small worms (about 1mm long). C. elegans was the first species to have its genome completely sequenced.

Cancer Research UK

Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to beat cancer.

  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.

Breast Cancer Campaign

  1. Breast Cancer Campaign is the only charity that specialises in funding independent research into breast cancer throughout the UK. Our aim is to find the cure for breast cancer by funding research which looks at improving diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, better understanding how it develops and ultimately either curing the disease or preventing it.
  2. Currently it supports 84 research projects, worth over £10.4 million in 50 centres of excellence across the UK
  3. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and accounts for nearly one in three of all cancers in women.
  4. In the UK, almost 44,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women each year, that’s 120 a day.
  5. Breast Cancer Campaign’s Science for life survey has been published and can be downloaded as a PDF from their website or call Claire Learner on 020 7749 3705 for a copy.