Researchers at the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) in Montreal have identified a key gene (called Brg1) that regulates leukemia stem cells. What’s more- they’ve figured out a way to disarm it!
This isn’t an easy thing to figure out. Sometimes, when cancer cells are targeted, normal cells are also damaged because the genes involved in regulating cancer cells may also be essential in normal cell function. They need to know exactly what the gene does in order to figure out what they can- and can’t- do with it.
But how do they figure this out? You certainly wouldn’t want to try to shut down a gene in a human patient without fully understanding what you’re doing. This is a great example of the importance of animal-based research. Cell cultures can definitely tell you a lot, but when you want to find out how a treatment is going to affect an entire living system, animals are truly life-savers.
And based on animal and cell studies, it looks like normal blood cells don’t need Brg1 to function! More work is needed before moving into clinical trials, but this could definitely be life-changing. The cancer stem cells that Brg1 regulates are more resistant to treatments, and the ability to turn them off could make treating leukemia easier and also help prevent relapses without damaging normal cells!
With increased breast cancer awareness and the growing number of diagnostic tools available- including MRI, mammograms, and genetic testing- more and more women are diagnosed with precancerous breast tissue. And unnecessary surgery and treatments are becoming more common, because doctors can’t accurately tell which of these women will actually go on to develop cancer.
But instead of using a “better safe than sorry” approach, researchers want to be able to determine which genes drive breast cancer- and stop them! Because the genes in cells work together in complex and sometimes unexplained ways, simply looking at genes that are activated as cancer develops doesn’t always work.
Using a combination of science, mathematics and engineering, researchers pinpointed a gene that had the strongest statistical link to breast cancer (HoxA1) by reverse-engineering gene networks. And by using a novel therapy to block this gene, they were able to reverse cancer cells in culture as well as prevent cancer development in mice! Pretty amazing- check it out!
Alzheimer’s clues from a sleeping baby? Sounds a little strange… but read on. Researchers at Brown University imaged the brains of 162 healthy, sleeping babies. Out of these infants, DNA testing showed that 60 had a specific gene variant (APOE ε4) that has been linked to an increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And imaging results showed that the brains of babies with this gene variant developed differently than those without it!
Before you worry about these babies, don’t- doctors aren’t assuming that babies with this variant will develop Alzheimer’s. About 25% of the U.S. population carries the APOE ε4 variant, and not everyone who has it will develop the disease- it plays other roles in blood and brain development as well, but is not fully understood. But about 60% of people who develop Alzheimer’s have at least one copy of the gene, so looking at early brain changes in healthy babies with the variant could really help researchers understand how this gene is associated with increased risk for the disease.
Rodents are often used in Alzheimer’s studies, because their generation times are so short that an animal can be followed from birth through adulthood in a matter of months. Hopefully, with the combination of human and animal studies, researchers can use this information to learn more about the gene’s role in predisposition to Alzheimer’s.