Molecule's 'dark side' can trigger cancer

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered that a common molecule previously known to play a fundamental role in building protein, can also trigger cancer. The surprise findings are published in Cell*.today (Thursday).

In previous work, the scientists based at Cancer Research UK's Beatson Institute in Glasgow, found levels of a molecule called tRNA**, which helps kickstart protein production, were unusually high in some cases of ovarian and cervical cancer.

So in the new study, researchers boosted ovarian cells in the laboratory with extra tRNA and discovered the cells turned cancerous. Three different types of fibroblast cells*** also responded in a similar way, leading the team to believe their research may be applicable to many different forms of the disease.

Lead researcher, Professor Robert White, from the Beatson Institute, said: "For the first time our study shows that tRNA, a molecule which has always been regarded by scientists to play a safe and rather boring ‘housekeeping’ role, can have a darker side.

"A great deal of our work has been based on understanding the changes that take place a lot earlier in the cancerous process to kick-start the damage. We can now see that tRNA also plays a fundamental part in doing this. This finding will open up new and potentially important avenues for drug development."

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information said: "This startling discovery raises serious questions about how important the tRNA will turn out to be in the complex chain of biological changes that cause cancer to develop. We now need to find out if the tRNA can be manipulated for the benefit of cancer patients."

ENDS

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Notes to Editor

*The paper, Elevated tRNAiMet Synthesis Can Drive Cell Proliferation and Oncogenic Transformation is published in the journal Cell on 4 April 2008

**tRNA or transfer RNA plays a fundamental role in protein synthesis (translation). Translation refers to the process by which a ribosome makes a protein based on an mRNA template (the messenger RNA sequence). There are different tRNAs, each one brings a specific amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) to the ribosome in the order specified by the mRNA.

***The cells used in this study were immortalised ovarian and fibroblast cells which have the capacity to grow in tissue culture and proliferate indefinitely mimicking changes that can lead to cancer.

The authors are Lynne Marshall, Niall Kenneth and Robert White from the Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Scotland and the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, Scotland

Professor White is running the Flora London Marathon for Cancer Research UK on 13 April 2008. You can support him through his justgiving page.

About the University of Glasgow

The University of Glasgow is one of the top 100 universities in the world with an international reputation for its research and teaching and an important role in the cultural and commercial life of the country. The University of Glasgow's Faculty of Biomedical & Life Sciences is an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in the biological sciences. With 140 academic staff, 120 contract workers and nearly 250 postgraduate students, FBLS is one of the major centres for biological research in Europe.

About the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research

The Beatson Institute for Cancer Research is core-funded by Cancer Research UK and provides a dynamic, supportive and well-resourced environment for its basic and translational scientists. Its mission is to:

  • understand how cancer cells grow, survive and spread
  • identify critical components of these pathways as targets for novel cancer treatments
  • help translate this knowledge for the benefit of cancer patients

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