"Turned Off" in Human Tumors

Specific genes need to be activated to halt Burkitt's lymphoma cancer

(RxWiki News) Researchers have gained new insights into one of the most aggressive tumors affecting humans, Burkitt's lymphoma cancer. There may be new ways of treating this painful and deadly disease with a new mechanism responsible for breaking down the genetic protections against tumors.

For this study, researchers focused on a genetic locus (the position of a gene or mutation on a chromosome) called INK4a/ARF locus. This locus is responsible for two genes - called p16 and p14 - that are often "turned off" in human tumors by genetic mutations. When p16 and p14 are turned off, cancer cells are able to rapidly grow and multiply.

dailyRx Insight: Turning the genes back on may halt Burkitt's lymphoma.

Annalisa Roberti and colleagues found that the genetics of the INK4a/ARF locus are unchanged in Burkitt's lymphoma, but that the product proteins (p16 and p14) are turned off by gene expression at the RNA level as well as by non-genetic factors.

Put in plain English: Roberti and her team discovered a new mechanism responsible for breaking down the genetic protections against tumors caused by Burkitt's lymphoma.

As Roberti explains, the inactivation of the p16 and p14 proteins is not at the genetic level, which means that it may be possible to reverse their inactivation using drugs. In their model, the researchers were able to reactivate the proteins and consequently reduce the growth of tumor cells. This provides an opportunity to gain a greater understanding and improved treatments of Burkitt's lymphoma.

Burkitt's lymphoma is a rare form of cancer in the United States, with about only 300 new cases per year. However, it is the most common form of childhood cancer in Central Africa. It is a very aggressive form of cancer, often transforming a healthy person into a very sick individual in as little as four to six weeks.

Burkitt's is usually diagnosed from a biopsy of a site suspected of being diseased, such as from bone marrow or a lymph node. Other common tests include complete blood counts (CBCs), platelet counts, and sometimes CT scans. The cancer is most commonly treated using chemotherapy as well as prescribed medications, including cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan®, Neosar®), methotrexate (Trexall®), and many others.

The study - which was conducted by the Sbarro Health Research Organization Center for Biotechnology at the College of Science and Technology at Temple University and the University of Siena in Italy - is published in Cell Cycle

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Review Date: 
March 16, 2011