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Research identifies new gene fault associated with pancreatic cancer

29 April 2012

A team of UK researchers has discovered a new gene that plays a key role in pancreatic cancer.

A wide variety of genes are known to be important in pancreatic cancer and usually these genes are faulty because of a mutation in their sequence, which occurs when cells replicate.

Now, researchers at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, have identified a new way that genes can become faulty in cancer.  In the case of a gene called USP9x, they have shown that the fault occurs through chemical ‘tags’ being added by enzymes inside the cell.

Co-lead author Professor David Tuveson, said: “We suspected that the fault wasn’t in the genetic code at all, but in the chemical tags on the surface of the DNA that switch genes on and off, and by running more lab tests we were able to confirm this.”

“Drugs which strip away these tags are already showing promise in lung cancer and this study suggests they could also be effective in treating up to 15 per cent of pancreatic cancers.”

In the study, published in the journal Nature, mice with pancreatic cancer were screened for genes that stop the growth of a tumour, called tumour suppressor genes. Tumour suppressor genes act as the brakes for cell growth and when they become faulty, there is nothing to stop the cell multiplying out of control.

The team used an advanced technique called the ‘sleeping beauty transposon system’ to identify genes that were crucial to cancer cell growth. The approach uncovered many genes already linked to pancreatic cancer, but unexpectedly, the most common gene fault was one with no previous links to pancreatic cancer - USP9x.

Then team then confirmed the gene's relevance to humans using tissue donated from pancreatic cancer patients from Australia, the USA and Germany.  In humans, low levels of USP9x expression is linked to poor survival after surgery and increased spread of the cancer. 

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