A Genetic Flurry Opens Door for New Cancer Treatments

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A new study published in the journal Nature reveals that there is a lot about cancer cells we never knew before. But this isn’t a negative story about the disease, instead it’s a hopeful one: the discoveries may help scientists create new ways to fight cancer.

It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy as researchers labored in the lab, peering through telescopic lenses at tumor cells. While studying the DNA of these diseased cells, they kept discovering more and more genes that were directly involved in the cancer. Nobody had suspected all these genes were involved, but we now know that hundreds of them are.

The study represents another take on the difficulties we experience with trying to understand cancer. How, after all this time, could we not have known that a flurry of genes in the same cell are contributing to cancer? In large part, it’s because scientists have come to accept a difficult notion: that cancer isn’t one disease, but is in fact many diseases at once.

In a single family of genes taken from 200 samples of breast, stomach, colorectal, and other major tumors, researchers found more than 1,000 mutations. On top of that, other groups of genes were involved with the tumor. They believe that about 120 of the mutations they witnessed are the driving forces behind how cancer develops. Researchers label them “drivers” because they drive a cell to stop behaving normally and start behaving like a cancerous cell.

The 100 new cancer genes they found was a much greater number than they had expected (around 10). They come from a family of DNA, called “kinases”, that are well- known to be linked with cancer. One trait of these sorts of genes is that they can switch cells on and off — so if we could target a kinase gene and have it switch off a cancerous cell, imagine the possibly. In fact, some of the newest cancer therapies are targeting these kinases, sometimes with remarkable success in small groups of patients.

Researchers in this study looked at the DNA sequences of cancerous cells and compared them with normal cells. All mutations were tracked, and they found that some cancers tended to mutate quite a bit while others didn’t. All in all, it was a study of the cause of cancer, and will lead scientists down the all-important path of more effective cancer treatments.