The Misspellings and Magnets of Cancer

MLH1 gene changes attract methylation that leads to cancer

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It begins with a misspelling. That mistake then becomes a magnet for other changes. These altered genes that are more susceptible to cancer are passed on. And now you know the basics of hereditary cancer biology.

Researchers have discovered what they believe is the process that causes hereditary cancer. Anti-cancer genes somehow get a letter out of place. This misspelling then becomes like a magnet to attract bad guys that keep the genes from doing their job. These "switched off" genes - which are more prone to cancer - are passed from parent to child.

"Knowing the causes of hereditary cancer could lead to new drug therapies."

So now for the technical stuff...the anti-cancer genes that are altered attract what are known as biochemical tags.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) believe a spelling mistake in anti-cancer genes involves a single letter that's out of place.

This altered gene attracts are called biochemical tags known as methylation. This tag switches off the genes so they can't prevent cancer.

Dr. Megan Hitchins, from UNSW's Lowy Cancer Research Centre, explains that changes in one anti-cancer gene - MLH1 - are known to create up to 80 percent of the hereditary risks for colon and uterine cancers, among others.

Spelling mistakes aren't always involved, though. Sometimes methylation attaches to the MLH1, which shuts off the gene and cancer develops.

For this research, the UNSW studied three generations of a family who developed cancer at a young age. Several family members from each generation had the tags attached to the MLH1 gene.

Investigators realized it was a tiny change in the gene that was attracting the methylation.

This discovery opens new possibilities for families at risk of hereditary cancers. New options could be developed for genetic testing, counseling and interventions with these families.

These medical researchers are also looking at how drugs might be used to clear off the methylation to restore the anti-cancer gene functions.

This study was reported in the leading international journal Cancer Cell.

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Review Date: 
August 18, 2011
Last Updated:
August 19, 2011