Saskatoon, SK – A University of Saskatchewan research team has found that a pair of closely related genes may govern the development of cancer, a discovery that could lead to new early screening tools to detect the deadly disease, according to an article published last week in the Journal of Cell Biology.
"These two genes are very similar, like twins," says Wei Xiao, health scientist at the university. "They are over 90% identical, but they have very different functions."
In fact, the products of the genes and what they do has led Xiao and his team to dub them "Beauty and the Beast." Beauty codes for an enzyme, Mms2, which repairs damaged DNA so the cells keep reproducing healthy copies of themselves. If the DNA damage is too great, the cells destroy themselves in a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death.
Beast is another matter entirely. Its enzyme, Uev1A, encourages cell division. Dr Xiao, professor and head of the department of microbiology and immunology in the College of Medicine, explains that this is a critical function when the body is under attack by viruses or bacteria. In such a situation, Beast marshals defenses such as lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that must multiply rapidly to fight off invaders.
The two genes complement each other when they work together. But Dr Xiao says Beast’s propensity for uncontrolled cell division makes it a prospective oncogene a gene that causes cancer (in this case, lymphoma) when abnormally active in a cell.
"Both these genes work with the same partner, called Ubc13, so they both need the same resources," he says. "If the Beast is being constantly expressed to stimulate cells to reproduce, it could lead to cancer."
Dr Xiao hopes further studies will confirm this idea. If true, it could lead to screening tests to detect a cancer-causing imbalance much earlier, allowing treatment and prevention. Indeed, some reagents suitable for such tests have been developed by Dr Xiao and his colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and licensed to California-based Zymed Laboratories and Calgary-based CytoStore.