CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (December 1, 2007) Damaged or defective genes have long been known to be the cause of some cancers. Over the past decade, however, scientists have discovered that even healthy genes can be switched on or off and can cause cancer without any changes in the underlying DNA sequencealthough how this happens has remained poorly understood.
Researchers in the laboratory of Whitehead Member Rudolf Jaenisch now have established a direct causal connection between hypermethylation (the accumulation of too many methyl molecules on regions of DNA) and the development of colon tumors in mice.
The research directly demonstrated that hypermethylation switches off tumor suppressor genesthe "housekeeping" genes that keep cancer cells in check. The study, published December 1 in Genes and Development, found that hypermethylation boosted the number of intestinal tumors by 60-100 percent and significantly increased the average size of microscopic early-stage tumors.
While DNA methylation has been correlated with tumor development in numerous studies of human cancers, this is the first in vivo work demonstrating a causal connection in mammals. Better understanding of the process is a promising pathway to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of certain cancers with minimal side effects.
"Our research found a family of tumor-suppressor genes in mice that was silenced when methylated," says lead author Heinz Linhart. "This is important because the same genes are known to be silenced by methylation in human colon cancer cells. If we can switch on the gene that creates this abnormal methylation pattern, the next step is to find out if we can reverse the abnormal pattern by simply switching it off, reactivating the genes that suppress tumors. This is the therapeutic hope."
DNA methylation and packaging of DNA by proteins and other molecules (often referred to epigenetic mechanisms) regulate the activity of certain genes
|Contact: Eric Bender|
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research