Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Genes 'collaborate' in order to cause cancer

It is often said that cancer is a disease of the DNA. Indeed, tumours often start due to genetic modifications that alter the growth rate of cells. Scientists therefore spend a lot of time on genetics, in order to find specific mutations that tell us something about the foundations of the disease. Genetic alterations also help us predict future cases of cancer, and tell us something about possible treatment. Researchers from a Singaporean institute found a way to scan the DNA for modified genes that 'cooperate' in order to make a cell cancerous, while they would be harmless on their own. This new way of detecting harmful genetic changes enables doctors to more accurately predict cancer and disease progression.

Fruit flies
In their study, the scientists looked at fruit flies, which are rather different from us human beings but still overlap greatly in terms of genetics. Specifically, they were looking at ways that a mix of genes could cause cancer, while there would be no harm if they were on their own. For this purpose, they developed their own method in order to scan the DNA for such genes. This is in contrast with conventional research where scientists simply look at the role of individual genes and their accumulated effect.
Drosophila melanogaster: a fruit fly.
Specifically, the Singaporean researchers were looking at a receptor called EGFR. It accepts signals responsible for cellular growth, which is of course beneficial for cancer. The receptor has already been implied in various cancers, including breast and lung. The fruit fly study showed that their tool was able to identify genes that cooperate with EGFR. Most of them were not previously associated with cancer, which means scientists have a whole bunch of new targets to look at.

We are getting better and better at predicting cancer or its progress by looking at bodily markers, such as genes or the concentration of certain proteins. Cooperation of genes is a relatively new field of study when it comes to cancer research, but the results look promising. One of the targets found by the Singaporean scientists seems to have prognostic capabilities, preliminary analysis points out. 

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