Humble worm offers clue to cancer riddle

Cancer Research UK

Studies of primitive worms may lead to a better understanding of cancer in humans, according to a report in the prestigious journal Cell1 tomorrow (Friday 11 February 2005).

Many cells have complex mechanisms to detect and repair damaged DNA - if the damage cannot be repaired cells decide to stop growing or to commit suicide.

Faults in these mechanisms allow damaged cells to grow and multiply, which can lead to cancer. A team led by Dr Anton Gartner, a recently appointed Cancer Research UK Fellow, has discovered a new aspect of the DNA damage repair response in nematode worms2.

The results from Dr Gartner’s lab at Dundee University show that a protein called GLD-1 controls one of the signals that leads to cell death.

Because humans have a similar protein, the researchers suggest that this mechanism may also exist in human cells. If it does, scientists will have a promising target for further research that may aid the development of new treatments for cancer in the future.

Knowing how particular genes work and how they are controlled is the keystone of much current cancer research. But examining the mechanism of a gene’s action in people is often not feasible. Although cell cultures are of some value, they give no information as to the role of the gene in whole organisms. Scientists instead take advantage of the fact that some genes are very similar in humans and more primitive organisms like the nematode worm.

One such gene is p53, which is known as the ‘guardian of the genome’ because of its role in detecting damaged DNA and preventing the cell from passing on the damage.

Dr Gartner says: “p53’s importance in cancer is clear because it is faulty in over half of all cases of the disease. We know that p53 is controlled by a number of proteins within the cell, and our aim was to find new proteins that keep levels of the worm p53 in check. We established that the molecule known as GLD-1 restricts the amount of p53 present in cells, thereby controlling the level of response to DNA damage.”

“This research is a first step and will require further study, but we hope it may open up new avenues of research into how cancer develops.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information at Cancer Research UK, says: “We know that p53 is a crucial gene in the development of cancer, and any information on how it is regulated helps us to understand cancer better.”

ENDS

Notes to Editor

  1. Schumacher, B. et al. (2005) Cell120 (3)
  2. The species used is Caenorhabditis elegans, a non-parasitic nematode worm, about 1mm long. It is useful to scientists because it allows them to find out how certain genes impact on whole organisms. Although the worms have fewer genes than humans, we do have a common evolutionary heritage and the majority of the worm’s genes have equivalents in humans.
  • The results from Dr Gartner’s lab at Dundee University were done in collaboration with Dr. Tim Schedl at Washington University, St Louis.
  • The work was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Max Planck society, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the US National Institute for Health (NIH).
  • Dr Gartner's lab has a website. He is based at the School of Life Sciences, University of Dundee.

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