“Junk DNA” is a Double-Edged Sword: The Good Side has Anti-Cancer Potential

Oct. 20, 2021

The “junk DNA” that litters the genome may be useful in developing future cancer treatments, according to a new report in the journal Nature Immunology.

The discovery was led by Wilmot Cancer Institute investigators and University of Rochester biologists Vera Gorbunova, Ph.D., and Andrei Seluanov, Ph.D..

The DNA elements under investigation are known as retrotransposons. The bad side of retrotransposons is that if left to run amok, they can give rise to tumors. Researchers, however, discovered that if they are kept in the correct balance and leveraged properly, retrotransposons can trigger the immune system to destroy cancer.

The Gorbunova and Seluanov lab has long studied disease resistance and aging. Much of their work involves the blind mole rat, which lives underground and seems unaffected by cancer. In the latest scientific paper, researchers also found that the anti-cancer mechanisms behind retrotransposons are present in human cells, and plan to use the information to find new ways to stop cancer cell growth. Learn more.

Gorbunova is the Doris Johns Cherry Professor of Biology and Medicine; Seluanov is also a professor of Biology and Medicine. Both are leaders in the University of Rochester Aging Institute.