SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute have discovered internal genetic machines that can turn on and off cells at the right times, giving promise to further research to find a cure for cancer.
The discovery, by Bradley R. Cairns, senior director of basic sciences at the institute and a professor at the University of Utah's Department of Oncological Sciences, is reported in this week's online issue of the journal Nature.
Cairns' research focuses on chromatin remodeling complexes, which are cellular protein complexes that behave like motors at the cellular level to expand or compact different portions of DNA, either expressing or silencing certain genes along the chain.
Up until Cairns' recent discovery, scientists thought that the motor within the complex waits at rest until it receives instructions. Cairns and co-author Cedric R. Clapier show that the motor within a key complex is responsible for gene packaging and assembly is intrinsically turned on, and instead requires specific instructions to turn it off.
Cairns' discovery, while not pertinent to any specific type of cancer, can teach cancer researchers how to drive the cells, or that they have "on-board controls," he said.
"They are responsible for packaging the DNA in such a way that it is tightly wrapped and silent. If you don't do that, the gene could precociously turn on, and that could lead to a mutation, or cancer," Cairns said.
Looking at various cancerous cells in the body, he said, "it turns out that there are quite often mutations in one of the packaging motors," or chromatin remodeling complexes.
"Our results change where future researchers should be looking to understand how chromatin remodeling complexes are regulated, not at the chromatin remodeling complex motor itself, but at the switches that flank the motor," Cairns said.
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