Group of enzymes might cause cells to turn cancerous

By Jeremy Thompson, Staff Writer

Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute have uncovered a group of enzymes that might provide insight into the beginnings of cancer development in humans.

“We used enzymes found in zebrafish to understand how organisms lose control of which genes are active at any given time,” said Brad Cairns, a U professor of oncological sciences and co-author of the study. “Organisms are normally able to control their DNA so that only the genes that need to be turned on are functioning and genes that are not functioning as they should can be deactivated.”

The process of controlling which genes are actively working and which genes are temporarily shut off is known as methylation. This process appears to malfunction in cancer cells. The newly discovered enzymes appear to be responsible for turning on genes that were previously inactivated by the organism. The reactivation of these genes is considered to be one of the triggers that cause cells to become cancerous.

“We believe this could be one of the earliest processes to go wrong in cancer,” said David Jones, a professor of oncological sciences and senior director of early translational research at the cancer institute.

“It is the first time that we have been able to identify specific enzymes that reverse methylation and as a result activate previously shut down genes,” he said. “In cancer genes, methylation processes go haywire, which leads to tumor growth. These enzymes provide one pathway and one possible explanation as to how this process works.”

Jones explained that when a cell begins to become cancerous, genes that should be turned off suddenly become active again, causing potentially fatal problems within the cell. The discovered enzymes appear to be the cause of this breakdown, as they remove parts of the deactivated DNA and replace it with DNA groups that have not been turned off. This process results in the cell having genes turn back on despite being shut down earlier, which can eventually cause the cell to become cancerous.

Jones said that the discovery of these enzymes is important because it could provide a way to help fight cancer. If used in the correct way, the technology could provide a way to reactivate helpful genes that might have been turned off by the cancerous cell.

“We could someday hopefully reactivate a completely normal gene in a tumor cell8212;a gene that could prevent the growth of a tumor if reactivated,” Jones said. “By manipulating these enzymes, we could possibly prevent or even slow the onset of tumors.”

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