U researchers study cancer cell mechanisms

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

Humans need the microscopic cells in their bodies to survive and reproduce. But in the case of some cells, dying is the better option.

U doctoral student Simon Titen followed the process of cancer development in fruit flies and found three genes that play a big part in whether a mutated cell will live or die. The research could help other scientists learn how to force cancerous cells to self-destruct before they spread.

Titen decided to use fruit flies that live about 90 days. Titen and Kent Golic, a biology professor at the U, injected yeast which cut off the end of a chromosome in some of the fruit flies.

With the end of the chromosome gone, cells weaken and become susceptible to other mutations.

“What happens to most cells is they see the problem and commit suicide,” Golic said.

Not all cells are self-sacrificial, though. About 10 percent of the mutated cells survive, which can lead to cancer.

If one of the three genes is also changed through the chromosome or destroyed in some way, the cell is less likely to die and could spread mutation onto other cells and lead to cancer.

“You could end up with a genetic catastrophe,” Golic said.

Titen said they don’t know why most cells self-destruct, but some live and spread to other cells.

The research still helps other scientists understand the early
development of cancer and how some mutated cells don’t continue after mutation.

However, by using fruit flies that don’t live long after the mutation occurs, researchers can’t follow the cells as they become cancerous or create other problems.

Titen said he has considered using mice or other animals to study whether the same genes affect the cell’s decision to live or die.

Golic said the next point of interest would be to understand why any of the three genes affects the cell.

“This work has just finished up, but the rest of it still continues,” he said. “Those cells that don’t succumb to suicide, we want to know how they avoid the regular cell mission to commit suicide.”

The study will be published in the December issue of the journal Genetics.

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Erik Daenitz

University researchers study fruit flies in hopes to discover why, when damaged, certain cells kill themselves and others go on to become cancerous.