Scientists use new approach to hunt down cancer-causing genes

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists have found 13 genes that can lead to liver cancer if they are faulty or missing.

The genes, 12 of which had never been linked to cancer before, were identified thanks to a new approach that combined existing technologies.

Researchers at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory started by identifying genes that were repeatedly missing in 100 human liver cancers. This was based on the assumption that some of these genes may act as tumour suppressors that would normally prevent cancer. This narrowed down the search to 362 genes.

The team then found the equivalent of 301 of these genes in mice and switched each gene off one by one in liver cells. These engineered cells were then transplanted into mice in order to find out which of the genes, when faulty, was linked to tumour development.

The study identified 13 genes which, when switched off, could lead to cancer.

The findings are published in the journal Cell. Scott Lowe, a researcher at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said: "It's important to understand all the genetic alterations that can give rise to cancer. If we understand cancer, we can treat it better by going after the molecular causes or by categorising cancers to better predict their behaviour."

He revealed that two of the newly-discovered genes are responsible for the production of particular proteins, which could potentially form the basis of new anti-cancer therapies.

Dr Lowe observed: "It's hard to put a gene back, but if it's a secreted protein, in theory you could inject the protein back."

The researchers also discovered that some of the missing regions contain more than one gene that can lead to cancer.

"Apparently, there is a high incidence of cancer genes that are physically next to each other in the genome," Dr Lowe said. "It may explain why cancer is so heterogeneous; there are a lot of possible combinations to get there."

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