Knowing How Cancer Starts Could Help Stop it Earlier

Order of genetic mutations may be key to solving cancer puzzle

(RxWiki News) Scientists have long understood that cancer is caused by a series of changes - or mutations - in the DNA of cells. Now they're beginning to understand how the whole process gets started.

For the first time, researchers used a statistical model to pinpoint the order in which abnormalities occur. This data allowed them to analyze the pattern of DNA changes in ovarian and skin tumors.

"Understanding order of gene mutations may lead to better cancer treatment."

Scientists at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Knight Cancer Institute, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology collaborated on this study.

The team focused on a gene called TP53 which normally works to keep cells from growing wildly and becoming cancerous. Researchers looked at how additional copies of the mutated - or mutant - gene builds up. It turns out that changes in the gene occur earlier in the process than once believed.

While cancers develop following a number of mutations, the changes that happen first set the foundation for the course of the disease.

Joe Gray, Ph.D., associate director for translational research for the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, says these findings will aid in finding ways to detect cancer in its earlier and more treatable stages.

Early changes are seen in every cell of the cancer. So understanding what happens early on, may lead to therapies that can target all the cancer cells, says study lead scientist, Paul Spellman, Ph.D., of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

At this point, only a few types of cancers have been analyzed using this method. Moving forward, the model could be used to examine all cancers. Gray says a short-term goal is to identify the early mutations that occur in cancers that already have available therapies.

This research was supported by Stand Up To Cancer and grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The study’s findings are published in the July edition of Cancer Discovery.

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Review Date: 
June 30, 2011