Genetic instability could predict cancer aggressiveness, says research

In collaboration with the Press Association

Indirectly measuring a phenomenon known as 'chromosomal instability' by looking at the activity of certain key genes in cancer cells, could be used to predict how aggressive different cases of cancer could be.

Currently, cancer cells are examined down a microscope to try to work out how aggressive they are, and this method is not always reliable.

Published in the journal Nature Genetics, the research uses data from 18 previous studies of gene activity and focuses on the ways that the genetic material inside a cell can become progressively more unstable as cancers develop.

The research team developed their method by looking at previous work examining the levels of activity of many different genes.

Taking all this evidence together, the team found a group of 25 genes which could act as a reliable indicator of chromosomal instability.

Environmental toxins, errors in genetic replication and other factors can cause chromosomes, the huge, tightly packed molecules of DNA found in the centre of the cell, to break. Pieces of DNA may then become lost or duplicated.

Normally, cells are able to regulate and repair this damage but when that system breaks down, chromosomes become unstable. This in turn makes cancers more likely to occur.

"Chromosomal instability is one of the key mechanisms that keeps malignant cell proliferation going," said lead researcher Dr Zoltan Szallasi, of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

"We have achieved a relatively easy way to measure the level of chromosomal instability in a given tumour sample."

Find out more about DNA damage