Myeloma hope through genes study
Monday 19th August 2013, 2:50PM BST.
A defective ageing gene may drive blood cancer by helping tumour cells become immortal, research has shown.
The discovery pinpointing the role of the TERC gene could lead to new treatments for myeloma, which affects around 4,700 UK patients each year.
Scientists identified four new gene variants linked to the disease, bringing the total number known to seven.
TERC regulates the length of telomeres, caps on the ends of chromosomes that play a major role in cellular ageing.
Telomeres have been compared to the plastic tips of shoe laces, because they prevent coiled double strands of DNA from fraying and sticking together.
Every time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten until a point of “senescence” is reached when no further division takes place.
Senescence is believed to contribute to ageing – but may also suppress cancer by halting the uncontrolled growth of tumours.
The new research suggests a problem with TERC may enable lymphoma cells to ignore the ageing trigger and keep on dividing.
Study co-author Professor Richard Houlston, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: “Our study has taken an important step forward in understanding the genetics of myeloma, and suggested an intriguing potential link with a gene that acts as a cell’s internal timer.
“We know cancer often seems to ignore the usual controls over ageing and cell death, and it will be fascinating to explore whether in blood cancers that is a result of a direct genetic link. Eventually, understanding the complex genetics of blood cancers should allow us to assess a person’s risk or identify new avenues for treatment.”
The scientists compared the genetic make-up of 4,692 myeloma patients with DNA from almost 11,000 people without the disease.
A previous study led by the same team found three genetic defects associated with myeloma.
The new findings, reported in the journal Nature Genetics, point to four additional variants associated with genes likely to fuel the disease, including TERC.
Myeloma is caused by rogue white blood cells which are normally key players in the immune system.
The cells proliferate uncontrollably and clog up the bone marrow, disrupting normal blood production and causing severe pain.
Fewer than four in 10 people with the disease survive for more than five years, and three in 10 die within a year of diagnosis.
Professor Chris Bunce, from the charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: ” The identification of these risk gene variants offers more compelling evidence that susceptibility to myeloma can be inherited. Myeloma remains incurable and the effect on patients’ quality of life can be devastating.
“By showing how these specific genes influence the cancer’s development, this research could potentially lead to the development of targeted myeloma drugs in the future. In addition, we know that a common condition called MGUS predisposes to the development of myeloma. The identification of additional genetic risk factors in these patients could revolutionise their future management and prospects.”
Heather McKinnon, clinical research programme manager at the charity Myeloma UK, said: ” The study published today in Nature Genetics identifies four more genetic variations in myeloma and for the first time demonstrates an association with ageing. Myeloma UK is committed to supporting this important research and invests in a programme of work at The Institute of Cancer Research.”
Both charities funded the research, with additional support from Cancer Research UK.