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Genetic link shared by cancers

22nd August 2011

A newly discovered property of a gene called STAG2 acts as a heritable risk factor in at least three cancers, according to a recent US study.

cancercell

The researchers showed that a statistically important number of skin, bone, and brain cancers could all be tied to mutations on STAG2.

Lead researcher Todd Waldman, of the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, said that his team observed STAG2 mutate whenever cancer cells began to appear.

Having a defective copy of STAG2 seemed to be a factor in a fifth of the cases the researchers considered.

In those cases, the protein coded for by STAG2 was totally absent from cancerous cells.

Waldman said that he and his research team were now looking at whether STAG2 might be mutated in breast, colon, lung, and other common human cancers.

If future researchers can find a drug which selectively targets cells with defective STAG2, doctors may be able to prevent certain cancers from forming.

The precise mechanism by which STAG2 contributes to cancer development seems to have to do with cell division resulting in too many or too few chromosomes, known as aneuploidy.

The researchers wrote that STAG2 was likely to function as a tumor suppressor gene, commonly known as a caretaker gene.

In a separate study, another research team studied aneuploidy in yeast.

They bred 13 different strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a common yeast, to have extra copies of a single chromosome.

The mutant strains all had an increased mutation rate, particularly when it came to chromosomes.

The genetic code of the yeast became progressively more mutated as time went on.

Lead researcher Angelika Amon, of the Massachussets Institute of Technology, said that the instability brought about by having extra chromosomes could facilitate the development of genetic alternations that drove malignant growth in cancer.

Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said that scientists had known for over a century that aneuploidy was part of the develpment of cancer, but that the recent study presented researchers with new ways of tackling cancer.

She said that the recent studies strengthened the causal link between aneuploidy and cancer, shedding light on how chromosome numbers can be altered when cells divide, and giving scientists new strategies for developing drugs.

In a commentary on both studies, researchers noted that chromosomal abnormalities like aneuploidy were hallmarks of cancer, in which organisms' attempts at damage repair actually led to more defects.

 

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