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Cancer Scientists' Gene Research Offers New Treatment Hope

Scientists are developing a new weapon in the war on cancer by targeting the human genes that allow tumours to grow unchecked in the body.//

Two separate teams of researchers have found a way of switching off critical genes within a tumour cell that would otherwise stimulate the spread of the cancer. Although the research is still at an early stage, scientists are describing the approach as potentially one of the most important developments since the former US president Richard Nixon declared his "war in cancer" in 1971.

Doctors often describe cancer as a genetic disease because of the role-played by genes in causing the uncontrolled proliferation of a cancerous cell into a tumour. The radical approach is to use molecules of RNA - a substance similar to a gene's DNA - to "silence" or switch off certain key genes known to be involved in the growth of tumours.

One team at the University of Oxford has shown in a laboratory study that it is possible to use large molecules of RNA to switch off a gene responsible for an enzyme called dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR), which is essential for the rapid proliferation of tumour cells.

Another team, based in the German city of Tübingen has used smaller molecules of RNA in an animal study to switch off a separate gene known to be involved in the rapid growth of brain tumours.

Alexandre Akoulitchev, a senior research fellow at Oxford, said that there is a growing consensus among cancer scientists that RNA molecules could generate new ways of treating the many different kinds of cancer that can affect the body. "There has been a quiet revolution taking place in biology during the past few years over the role of RNA," he said.

The Oxford team has shown that it is possible to use RNA to directly affect the genetic "switch" controlling the gene for DHFR. When it is switched off, the rapidly dividing cancer cells are starved of a vital building block - a chemical ca
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