Brain cancers reveal novel genetic disruption in DNA

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December 29, 2015

Researchers may have found a new cause for uncontrollable cancer cell growth, after extensive study of the DNA of brain cancer cells.

Scientists from the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA have discovered a phenomenon that could promote the growth of cancer cells. Bradley Bernstein, pathology professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature, found that a mutated gene, called isocitrate dehydrogenase (or IDH) – a metabolism gene seemingly unrelated to cancer – was present in up to 80 percent of low- and moderate-grade gliomas, as well as other tumor types.

When mutated, the researchers found this gene causes cancer cells’ DNA to become studded with methyl groups, which disrupts the protein barrier between genes in the cells. With this barrier altered, typically dormant genes are “turned on” and promote growth of glioma cells. To find a solution, researchers tested a rarely-used first-generation chemotherapy drug, 5-Azacytidine, that helped to turn off cell growth by dissolving the methyl groups and restoring the barrier between the genes. The result was more controlled cell growth and division.

According to Dr. Bernstein, this research suggests that treating gliomas as soon as they are detected with a drug like 5-Azacytidine can restore the DNA “loops”, or the protein barriers. He believes this method can be applied to the growing list of other cancers with an excessive number of methyl tags on their DNA, including liver cancers, sarcomas, colon cancers, bladder cancers and leukemia.

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This research was supported by a grant from the American Brain Tumor Association.