Earlier crystal structures suggested that FEN1 first grabs onto the flap of the 5' single stranded DNA, slides down to the joint where DNA is duplicated, and cuts and patches the primer there. But the new study found that, in fact, FEN1 binds, bends, frays, and then cuts the DNA.
"It binds duplex DNA, bends it into a single-stranded DNA right at the flap, flips out two base pairs, and cuts between them," said Tainer. "This gives FEN1 very precise controla sophistication we had not expected."
Clues to cancer control
Researchers know that mutations in FEN1 can predispose humans to cancer growth because errors in flap removal can create unstable DNA that promotes cell growth and division. And studies in mice have shown that when one of two inherited FEN1 genes are knocked out, the mice are predisposed to cancer development if their DNA is damaged.
While other DNA repair systems can help compensate for FEN1 mistakes, or for missing FEN1 activity, "you need a lot of FEN1 for DNA repair and replication to work properly," Tainer said.
This suggests that, in tumors already missing one set of repair proteins, selectively inhibiting the function of FEN1 in rapidly replicating cells may prove to be an effective anti-cancer therapy. "The Achilles heel of cancer cells is defective DNA repair pathways," said Tainer, "because that makes them more sensitive to traditional therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation. If cancer can't repair the damage these therapies do to tumors, they will die."
This is the paradox of DNA repair: while a defect in DNA repair can cause cancer, knocking out a number of backup repair systems may make tumors vulnerable to anti-cancer therapies.
"My hope is that our finding of how FEN1 works mechanistically might provide a foundation for a next-generation cancer drug," said Tainer. "We need to cut as many lifelines as pos
|Contact: Mika Ono|
Scripps Research Institute