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Flip of genetic switch causes cancers in mice to self-destruct, Stanford researchers find

STANFORD, Calif. – Killing cancerous tumors isn’t easy, as anyone who has suffered through chemotherapy can attest. But a new study in mice shows that switching off a single malfunctioning gene can halt the limitless division of tumor cells and turn them back to the path of their own planned obsolescence.

The surprising possibility that a cell’s own natural mechanism for ensuring its mortality could be used to vanquish tumors opens the door to a new approach to developing drugs to treat cancer patients, according to Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (oncology) and of pathology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Felsher is the senior author of the study to be published July 30 in the advance online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our research implies that by shutting off a critical cancer gene, tumor cells can realize that they are broken and restore this physiologic fail-safe program,” said Felsher.

Cancer can be notoriously resistant to medical treatment. Not only do cancer cells proliferate uncontrollably, they somehow circumvent the mechanism that causes normal cells to die when they get old or malfunction. That makes cancer cells effectively immortal unless doctors manage to squelch them.

The gene Felsher’s team studied produces a protein called Myc (pronounced “mick”), which promotes cell division. A mutation of the gene causes cells to overproduce the protein, prompting perpetual cell division and tumor growth. By turning off the mutated gene, the researchers found that not only did uncontrolled cell division cease, but the cells also reactivated a normal physiological mechanism, called senescence, which makes it possible for a cell to eventually die.

“What was unexpected was just the fact that cancer cells had retained the ability to undergo senescence at all,” said Felsher. Cancer researchers had long thought the senescence process had to be irreversibly disrupted for a tumor to develop.

The researchers worked with a series of mice engineered to have Myc-triggered cancers of either the liver, blood or bones, along with a specially constructed version of the Myc gene that they could switch off by feeding the mice antibiotics. When the mice dined on doses of the drugs, invariably, the tumors ceased growing and then diminished, with some disappearing over the course of just a few days.

Although Felsher’s lab had previously shown that mouse tumors diminished and disappeared when Myc was switched off, they hadn’t been sure how the process actually worked. Historically, most research involving genetic methods of battling cancer cells has focused on reactivating genes called tumor-suppressor genes, which are generally overcome by a proliferating cancer. No one had explored the idea that senescence might play a key role in diminishing tumors.

Felsher described senescence as acting like a fail-safe mechanism to stop cancer. When a cell detects a deleterious mutation, it launches the senescence process, resulting in the permanent loss of the cell’s ability to proliferate, thus halting any cancer.

“In order to become tumor cells, those cells have to overcome senescence,” said Chi-Hwa Wu, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in Felsher’s lab and first author of the study. Wu had the inspiration to explore whether the sudden diminishment they had observed in the tumors might be due to the reactivation of some latent remnant of the trigger for senescence.

Through a series of experiments looking at enzymes associated with the senescence process, as well as some molecular markers, Wu confirmed her suspicion. And not only was senescence occurring in cells that had been thought to be incapable of it, the process was reactivated in all the different tumors they studied.

Consider it a cell version of the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. “It’s sort of like Mr. Hyde realizing that there’s something wrong with him and then being able to put himself back into his normal state as Dr. Jekyll,” Felsher said.

In addition to the deepened understanding of how the process of senescence works, Felsher and Wu see a lot of potential for new approaches to treating cancer, beyond the traditional tactic of trying to kill cancer cells directly. “This work implies that maybe part of the strategy should involve figuring out how to get the cancer cells to just be allowed to do what they originally wanted to do anyway, which is to not be proliferating endlessly and growing uncontrolled,” said Felsher.

The next step for the team is to see how well the approach works in human cancer cells. “And we’re also trying to figure out what the mechanism is,” Felsher said. “What are the molecular mechanisms of this, so that we can figure out how to better treat cancer””

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Other authors on the research paper are Jan van Riggelen, PhD, postdoctoral researcher; Alper Yetil, graduate student in cancer biology; Alice Fan, MD, instructor in medicine (oncology), and medical student Pavan Bachireddy.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Damon Runyon Lilly Clinical Investigator Award, the Lymphoma Research Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions – Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical center’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs at http://mednews.stanford.edu.

Contact: Lou Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-723-3900
Stanford University Medical Center

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July 31, 2007 Posted by | acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Alberta, Baltimore, Barcelona, Bethesda, Biological Sciences, Calgary, Canada, Cancer, Cancer Biology, Cancer Biology and Therapy, Childhood Lukemia, France, Genes, Genetic, Genetic Link, Genetics, Genome, Genomic, Germany, Global, Global Health Vision, Global News, Health Canada, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Human Genome, Italy, Japan, Leukemia, Medical Journals, Molecular Biology, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Newfoundland, News, News Australia, News Canada, News Israel, News Italy, News Jerusalem, News Switzerland, News UK, News US, News USA, NIH, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Osaka, Ottawa, Prince Edward Island, Public Health, Quebec, Research, RSS, RSS Feed, Toronto, UK, US, Virginia, Washington DC, Washington DC City Feed, Wellcome Trust, World News | Leave a comment

One man’s junk may be a genomic treasure

Scientists have only recently begun to speculate that what’s referred to as “junk” DNA – the 96 percent of the human genome that doesn’t encode for proteins and previously seemed to have no useful purpose – is present in the genome for an important reason. But it wasn’t clear what the reason was. Now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have discovered one important function of so-called junk DNA.

Genes, which make up about four percent of the genome, encode for proteins, “the building blocks of life.” An international collaboration of scientists led by Michael G. Rosenfeld, M.D., Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and UCSD professor of medicine, found that some of the remaining 96 percent of genomic material might be important in the formation of boundaries that help properly organize these building blocks. Their work will be published in the July 13 issue of the journal Science.

“Some of the ‘junk’ DNA might be considered ‘punctuation marks’ – commas and periods that help make sense of the coding portion of the genome,” said first author Victoria Lunyak, Ph.D., assistant research scientist at UCSD.

In mice, as in humans, only about 4 percent of the genome encodes for protein function; the remainder, or “junk” DNA, represents repetitive and non-coding sequences. The research team studied a repeated genomic sequence called SINE B2, which is located on the growth hormone gene locus, the gene related to the aging process and longevity. The scientists were surprised to find that SINE B2 sequence is critical to formation of the functional domain boundaries for this locus.

Functional domains are stretches of DNA within the genome that contain all the regulatory signals and other information necessary to activate or repress a particular gene. Each domain is an entity unto itself that is defined, or bracketed, by a boundary, much as words in a sentence are bracketed by punctuation marks. The researchers’ data suggest that repeated genomic sequences might be a widely used strategy used in mammals to organize functional domains.

“Without boundary elements, the coding portion of the genome is like a long, run-on sequence of words without punctuation,” said Rosenfeld.

Decoding the information written in “junk” DNA could open new areas of medical research, particularly in the area of gene therapy. Scientists may find that transferring encoding genes into a patient, without also transferring the surrounding genomic sequences which give structure or meaning to these genes, would render gene therapy ineffective.

Contributors to the paper include Lluis Montoliu, Rosa Roy and Angel Garcia-Díaz of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología in Madrid, Spain; Christopher K. Glass, M.D., Ph.D., UCSD Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine; Esperanza Núñez, Gratien G. Prefontaine, Bong-Gun Ju, Kenneth A. Ohgi, Kasey Hutt, Xiaoyan Zhu and Yun Yung, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Molecular Medicine, UCSD School of Medicine; and Thorsten Cramer, Division of Endocrinology, UCSD Department of Medicine.

The research was funded in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

Contact: Debra Kain
ddkain@ucsd.edu
619-543-6163
University of California – San Diego

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July 13, 2007 Posted by | Alberta, Baltimore, Barcelona, Bethesda, Biological Sciences, Calgary, Chile, DNA, Genes, Genetic, Genetics, Genome, Genomic, Global, Global Health Vision, Global News, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Human Genome, Irvine, Italy, Japan, National Institutes of Health, Newfoundland, News, News Australia, News Canada, News Israel, News Italy, News Jerusalem, News Switzerland, News UK, News US, News USA, NIH, Nova Scotia, Osaka, Ottawa, Pennsylvania, Prince Edward Island, Proteins, Quebec, Research, Research Australia, RSS, RSS Feed, Slovakia, Spain, Toronto, UCSD, University of California, Virginia, WASHINGTON, Washington DC, Washington DC City Feed, World News | Leave a comment

New gene mutation identified in common type of dementia

ST. PAUL, MN — Researchers have identified a new gene mutation linked to frontotemporal dementia, according to a study published in the July 10, 2007 issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Frontotemporal dementia, one form of which is known as Pick’s disease, involves progressive shrinking of the areas of the brain that control behavior and language. Symptoms include language problems and personality changes, often with inappropriate social behavior. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease dementia, the disease does not affect memory in the early stages. The genetic form of the disease is rare; most cases occur randomly.

“We are hopeful that this finding will help us better understand how this disease works and eventually help us develop new therapies for the disease,” said study author Amalia Bruni, MD, of the Regional Neurogenetic Centre in Lamezia Terme, Italy.

The researchers discovered a new mutation in the gene named progranulin in an extended family in southern Italy. The genealogy of this family has been reconstructed for 15 generations, going back to the 16th century; 36 family members have had frontotemporal dementia. For this study, DNA tests were conducted on 70 family members, including 13 people with the disease. “This is an important result that we pursued for more than 10 years,” said study co-author Ekaterina Rogaeva, PhD, with the Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Toronto.

The mutation identified in this study is in a gene on chromosome 17. The mutation leads to a loss of progranulin, a protein growth factor that helps brain cells survive. The mutation causes only half of the protein to be produced, because only one copy of the gene is active. Production of too much progranulin has been associated with cancer.

The new gene mutation was found in nine of those family members with the disease and 10 people who are currently too young to have the symptoms of the disease. But four people with the disease did not have the gene mutation. Bruni noted that these four people belong to a branch of the family with the disease in at least three generations. “These results are intriguing, since the family has two genetically distinct diseases that appear almost identical,” said Bruni.

The Italian family had no cases with two copies of the mutated gene. “We would have expected to see cases with two copies of the mutated gene, especially since this family shares much of the same genetic material, as there have been at least five marriages between first cousins over the years,” Bruni said. “It’s possible that loss of both copies of the progranulin gene leads to the death of embryos, and that’s why there were no cases with two copies of the mutated gene.”

“Another intriguing aspect in this Italian family is the variable age at onset, which ranged from 35 to 87 years in the family members who inherited the same mutation. Our future research will try to identify the modifying factors responsible for the severity of the disorder,” said Rogaeva.

Rogaeva says their studies will also try to identify the second gene responsible for dementia in this family.

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The study was supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Japan-Canada and Canadian Institutes of Health Research Joint Health Research Program, Parkinson Society of Canada, W. Garfield Weston Fellows, Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, National Institute on Aging Intramural Program, Italian Ministry of Health, and the Calabria Regional Health Department.

The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 20,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to improving patient care through education and research. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

For more information about the American Academy of Neurology, visit http://www.aan.com.

Contacts:

Angela Babb
ababb@aan.com
651-695-2789

Robin Stinnett
rstinnett@aan.com
651-695-2763

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July 10, 2007 Posted by | Alberta, Alzheimers, Baltimore, Barcelona, Bethesda, Calabria Regional Health Department, Calgary, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Cancer, Chromosome 17, Epilepsy, Genes, Genetic, Genetic Link, Genetics, Global, Global Health Vision, Global News, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Italy, Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, Joint Health Research Program, Lamezia Terme, Multiple Sclerosis, Neurodegenerative Diseases, News, News Australia, News Canada, News Israel, News Italy, News Jerusalem, News Switzerland, News UK, News US, News USA, Ottawa, Parkinson Society of Canada, Parkinson's, Pick's Disease, Progranulin, Protein Growth Factor, Research, RSS, RSS Feed, Stroke, The American Academy of Neurology, Toronto, University of Toronto, Virginia, W. Garfield Weston Fellows, WASHINGTON, Washington DC, Washington DC City Feed, World News | Leave a comment

Cataloging the Structural Variations in Human Genetics

Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

May 10, 2007

A major new effort to uncover the medium- and large-scale genetic differences between humans may soon reveal DNA sequences that contribute to a wide range of diseases, according to a paper by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Evan Eichler and 17 colleagues published in the May 10, 2007, Nature. The undertaking will help researchers identify structural variations in DNA sequences, which Eichler says amount to as much as five to ten percent of the human genome.

Past studies of human genetic differences usually have focused on the individual “letters” or bases of a DNA sequence. But the genetic differences between humans amount to more than simple spelling errors. “Structural changes — insertions, duplications, deletions, and inversions of DNA — are extremely common in the human population,” says Eichler. “In fact, more bases are involved in structural changes in the genome than are involved in single-base-pair changes.”

“It’s a lot of work, because it’s essentially doing 62 additional human genome projects.”
Evan E. Eichler

In some cases, individual genes appear in multiple copies because of duplications of DNA segments. In other cases, segments of DNA appear in some people but not others, which means that the “reference” human genome produced by the Human Genome Project is incomplete. “We’re finding new sequence in the human genome that is not in the reference sequence,” Eichler says.

These structural changes can influence both disease susceptibility and the normal functioning and appearance of the body. Color-blindness, increased risk of prostate cancer, and susceptibility to some forms of cardiovascular disease result from deletions of particular genes or parts of genes. Extra copies of a gene known as CC3L1 reduce a person’s susceptibility to HIV infection and progression to AIDS. Lower than normal quantities of other genes can lead to intestinal or kidney diseases.

Variation in the number of genes or in gene regulation caused by structural rearrangements may also contribute to more common diseases. “The million dollar question is what is the genetic basis of diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels?” says Eichler. “ We know there is a genetic factor, but what is the role of single base pair changes versus structural changes?”

The project Eichler and his colleagues describe in their paper will help answer this question. Using DNA from 62 people who were studied as part of the International HapMap Project, they are creating bacterial “libraries” of DNA segments for each person. The ends of the segments are then sequenced to uncover evidence of structural variation. Whenever such evidence is found, the entire DNA segment is sequenced to catalog all of the genetic differences between the segment and the reference sequence.

The result, says Eichler, will be a tool that geneticists can use to associate structural variation with particular diseases. “It might be that if I have an extra copy of gene A, my threshold for disease X may be higher or lower.” Geneticists will then be able to test, or genotype, large numbers of individuals who have a particular disease to look for structural variants that they have in common. If a given variant is contributing to a disease, it will occur at a higher frequency in people with the disease.

Knowing about structural variation in the human genome will also allow geneticists to analyze single-base-pair changes more effectively, according to Aravinda Chakravarti, a geneticist at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not a coauthor of the paper. “We have to look at structural variants from a different perspective, because they are adding or subtracting something from the genome,” Chakravarti says. By understanding the patterns of both structural variants and single-base-pair changes in the population, “we’ll learn a lot.” To use both kinds of information in tandem, Eichler and his colleagues plan to incorporate the structural information they gather into existing databases on single-base-pair changes.

The project, which is being funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, is difficult and expensive, Eichler admits. “It’s a lot of work, because it’s essentially doing 62 additional human genome projects,” he says. “Having been involved in the first one, I swore I would never do it again. But in this case we’re looking at the coolest parts of the genome.”

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May 9, 2007 Posted by | Genetics, Global, Global Health Vision, Global News, Howard Hughes Medical Institute | Leave a comment