Gene Traffic Light Discovery Boost For Cancer Drugs

The range of Sheffield cancer treatments available to patients is substantial, but new research is going on all the time that may increase it, including what may prove a high significant new discovery.

Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London have identified a ‘traffic light’ epigenetic mechanism within cells that controls genetic activity, determining how a gene is translated into a protein.

The science of epigenetics is still barely understood, but this breakthrough has answered a key question as to how epigenetic proteins work to determine when and how DNA should be read and made into proteins.

A key signal called H3K4me3 works to ensure the translation occurs at the right time and in the right way, with researchers drawing an analogy between this and traffic lights in controlling the flow of gene transcription like traffic on a busy road.

Crucially, understanding this could explain how a breakdown in this regulation takes place and leads to the development of cancer cells, in particular in relation to leukaemia, breast, bowel and pancreatic cancers. These cancers arise when something goes wrong in the gene regulation and it has been known for around 20 years that H3K4me3 was involved.

The upshot of this is that such understanding could lead to new cancer drugs being developed to tackle various cancers, by blocking the activities of cancer-causing cells through altering the ‘traffic light’ actions of epigenetic cells.

Professor Kristian Helin, the chief executive of the ICR, commented: “We have solved a 20 year puzzle,” adding: “Because the enzymes determining the level of H3K4me3 in the cell frequently are found mutated in cancer, our studies could have implications for understanding and treating cancer.”

Epigenetics has already been linked with environmental influences that can combine with genetics to influence areas like childhood development, Harvard University has claimed.

This may also mean that environmental impacts can increase cancer risks in ways not hitherto understood. However these combinations develop, therapies based on the understanding of H3K4me3 may now offer a crucial way to reverse them.