Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Sleeping Beauty" helps find cancer genes

I wanted to cover this story for a couple of reasons, and one of them is the use of common language to describe a scientific concept. I love the term "Sleeping Beauty" in relationship to scientists finding genes that have a cancer connection.

The finding really is significant, and reported in the science journal Nature.

Researchers have discovered a new method that could accelerate the way cancer-causing genes are found and lead to a more accurate identification of the genes.

The gene identification method uses a piece of jumping DNA, called Sleeping Beauty.

Jumping genes, or transposons, insert themselves into or between genes and can activate or inactivate a gene’s normal function.

Now stick with me to follow how it came to be called Sleeping Beauty, as it is intriguing.

The scientists say, in an NIH press release, that related transposons are natural to the genetic makeup of humans, animals and fish, but through millions of years of evolution, most transposons became inactive dead-ends.

A few years back researchers took defunct jumping genes from fish and made the genes jump again. This research had reactivated the element in jumping genes from millions of years of evolutionary sleep, and thus the name Sleeping Beauty, the NIH states.

Researcher David Largaespada says, “Current cancer gene identification methods, such as microarrays, give correlations typically of thousands of genes, and it’s hard to know from the correlations which genes relate to cancer and which do not. By comparison, the jumping gene has attached itself to cancer genes in the tumors we studied and thereby allows us to focus in on smaller numbers of genes - genes that we know are important to the genesis of tumors. The result is a quicker, more efficient, and accurate identification of cancer-causing genes.”

Says Largaespada, “About 300 human cancer-related genes have thus far been reported in the scientific literature. There may be as many as 1,000 or more cancer genes that still need to be identified.”

Researcher Nancy Jenkins says, "The outcome of the new Sleeping Beauty method could be a major leap forward in understanding cancer’s weak points and subsequently lead to thousands more cancer patients joining the ranks of survivors.”

1 comment:

David Collin said...

Almost poetic. So how did the "hedgehog" gene get named? Gotta be some graduate student's discovery. Sleeping beauty certainly beats a name from some Mesopotamian philosopher who died a thousand years ago.

Kind of creepy tho. I can think up some sci-fi/horror plots linked to genes lying dormant millions of years and then "waking up." Does Michael Crichton know about this yet?