OMRF scientists have made a new discovery about the role two genes play in the development of certain types of cancer. The findings offer important clues about the causes of breast cancer and certain types of leukemia—and how they may be stopped.
The research appears in the latest issues of two scientific journals: Molecular and Cellular Biology and thePublic Library of Science (PLoS) One.
For years, scientists have known that a certain gene—known as “Notch”—is essential for the production of many types of cells in the body for the proper function of various organs. But research has found that when this gene is “turned up,” a process that can occur naturally and will amplify the gene’s effects, it can lead to the development of cancers such as breast cancer and T cell leukemia.
For more than 20 years, OMRF’s Xiao-Hong Sun, Ph.D., has studied the formation of the immune system and leukemia. In two new studies, a research team led by Sun now has shown how the Notch gene plays a critical role in the production of normal immune cells and how excessive Notch causes T cell leukemia.
When Sun’s team turned up the Notch gene in laboratory mice, the animals experienced rapid tumor growth and died within two months. When they turned up another gene (called Hes1), the mice also developed tumors, but tumor growth was slower, and the animals lived an average of six months.
From these findings, Sun concluded that the Hes1 gene takes orders from Notch to carry out its function in the development of T cell leukemia. Her lab will next search for other genes that have similar effects on the pathway that leads from the Notch gene to cancer.
“The goal is to find ways to control the functions of these genes and, ultimately, to control cancer onset,” said Sun.
“These studies are important for finding a cure,” she said. “If we can understand what genes are involved in Notch-induced cancer, we may be able to block the function of these genes without disabling functions of Notch that are essential for our immune system and other organs.”
Sun, who holds the Eli Lilly Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research, is a member in OMRF’s Immunobiology and Cancer Research Program. She received her Ph.D. from Cornell University and joined OMRF’s scientific staff in 1999.