Scientists isolate gene common to unrelated cancers

Toronto: Scientists investigating rare ovarian, uterine and testicular tumours have stumbled upon on a mutated gene that is surprisingly common to all of them.

David Huntsman, genetic pathologist at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Cancer Agency and Gregg Morin, from its Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, led a team which found mutations in rare, seemingly unrelated cancers, all tied to the same gene, DICER.

"There have been nearly 1,300 published studies about it in the last 10 years, but until now, it has not been known how the gene (DICER) functions in relation to cancer," said Huntsman, UBC professor in obstetrics, gynaecology, pathology and lab medicine.

The gene plays an important role in maintaining health. It has a "factory style" function, chopping up microRNA molecules to activate them. These microRNA molecules in turn control hundreds of other genes.

"This discovery shows researchers that these mutations change the function of DICER so that it participates directly in the initiation of cancer, but not in a typical "on-off" fashion," said Morin, UBC assistant professor in medical genetics.

"DICER can be viewed as the conductor for an orchestra of functions critical for the development and behaviour of normal cells. The mutations we discovered do not totally destroy the function of DICER; rather they warp it - the orchestra is still there but the conductor is drunk," Morin added.

This breakthrough is particularly pivotal because it could lead to solutions for treatment of more common cancers. "The discovery of the DICER mutation in this varied group of rare tumours is the equivalent of finding not the needle in the haystack, but rather the same needle in many haystacks," Huntsman concluded.