Boxing In Cancer Genes, Boxing Out Disease

Jun. 6, 2013

Scientists believe they’ve figured out a way to suppress the growth of tumors by keeping DNA tightly packaged -- essentially burying some of the genes responsible for cancer. It’s a little like keeping the lid on the jack-in-the-box, said Willis Li, Ph.D., a professor of Medicine at UC San Diego, who did the work while in the Department of Biomedical Genetics at URMC. The research is reported online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

jack-in-the-boxLi and post-doctoral student Xiaoyu Hu, Ph.D., at URMC, led a team that discovered that a signaling protein called STAT5A stabilizes the formation of heterochromatin, a form of chromosomal DNA. The stabilization process suppresses the ability of cancer cells to issue instructions to divide and grow.

In prior studies with fruit flies, an unphosphorylated form of STAT was the key to heterochromatin stability. Later studies with mice and human colon cancer cell samples confirmed the hypothesis.

As a follow up to the bench work, Li and colleagues are looking for small-molecule drugs that can promote heterochromatin formation while potentially suppressing multiple cancer genes. If they are successful, it could lead to a unique new class of therapies with fewer side effects.

The National Institutes of Health and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society sponsored the research, which can be found at: