Gene 'Turns Off' When Fighting Cancer, Finding Could Lead To New Drugs
May 1, 2012

Gene ‘Turns Off’ When Fighting Cancer, Finding Could Lead To New Drugs

According to Cancer Research UK, aggressive pancreatic tumors may be treatable with a new class of drugs.

Patients who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a 20 percent chance of living a year after they are diagnosed.

The new study, published in the journal Nature, showed that a gene was being switched off in the cancerous cells, and drugs are already being tested to potentially turn the gene back on.

The scientists screened a mouse version of pancreatic cancer for genes that speed up cancer growth.

They uncovered many genes that have been known to be involved in the disease, but found the most common gene fault was one with no previous links to any cancer type.

The gene, called USP9x, stops a cell from dividing uncontrollably, but researchers found in the mice study that it was being switched off in some pancreatic cancer cells.

They found that the gene is not mutated, but other proteins and chemicals become stuck to it and turn the gene off.

"We suspected that the fault wasn't in the genetic code at all, but in the chemical tags on the surface of the DNA that switch genes on and off, and by running more lab tests we were able to confirm this," Professor David Tuveson, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, said in a press release.

The researchers believe USP9x could play a role in about one in seven pancreatic cancers.  The defect might be able to be fixed through experimental drugs already showing promise in lung cancer cases.

“Drugs which strip away these tags are already showing promise in lung cancer and this study suggests they could also be effective in treating up to 15 per cent of pancreatic cancers," Tuveson said.

Dr David Adams, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, told BBC News the study strengthens scientists understanding that they must look into the biology of cells to identify all the genes that play a role in cancer.

One researcher from Cancer Research said that the findings could help direct scientists to new treatments.

"These results raise the possibility that a class of promising new cancer drugs may be effective at treating some pancreatic cancers," Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK's senior science information manager, said in a press release.

“Fewer than 20 per cent of people survive pancreatic cancer for a year after diagnosis — a situation that has improved little in the last 20 years. Studies like this one are part of Cancer Research UK´s commitment to invest more in hard-to-treat cancers like pancreatic cancer, hopefully improving treatment to save more lives in the future.”