(RxWiki News) Usually we hear about genetic mutations that can lead to cancer. New research has identified a gene that actually protects against cancer - a finding that could lead to the development of new drug therapies.
Researchers have found that mice with a genetic defect in the DCC (deleted colorectal cancer) develop cancer. Why? Because this gene is designed to protect against cancer.
Knowing the mechanisms behind how this works might offer a new target for drugs to keep this gene doing what it's supposed to do.
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Patrick Mehlen, director of the DEVweCAN 'Laboratory of Excellence' at the Lyon Cancer Research Centre (CNRS/Inserm/Centre Léon Bérard/Université Claude Bernard 1), led a team of investigators exploring cell death, a process known as apoptosis. In particular, the researchers were looking to see what makes cells know they are to begin self destruction when they become abnormal.
The team found the key seems to lie with sentinels on the surface of cells which examine their environment. Scientists have named these "dependence receptors."
Now, when a cell has a receptor that's associated with its ligand (a binding molecule), all is well with the cell. But when the cell doesn't have its ligand, it sends a signal that it's time to die.
In the case of cancer cells, when ligands are missing, the cells start killing themselves instead of growing chaotically.
Mehlen's team uncovered all this by modifying the DCC gene in mice. The researchers learned that the gene protects against the onset of cancer because it causes the death of malignant cells.
On the other hand, when the DCC "dependence receptors" are eliminated by mutation, the mice spontaneously developed colon cancer.
Mehlen says this tumor-suppressing gene naturally protects against cancer. "Unfortunately, certain cancer cells escape from this control by blocking this 'dependence receptor' mechanism. That is how we know that the DCC gene is extinguished in most human cancers," Mehlen explains.
Future research will focus on developing targeted therapies that work on reactivating the death march of cancer cells to destroy several types of cancer. Mehlen says his group has also come up with several candidate drugs and hopes to be able to conduct human clinical trials in several years.
The results of this study were published as a Letter in the 11th December 2011 issue of the journal Nature.