Hacking the Cancer Genome

30 Sep

human genome

These days, cancer is as much a target for researchers with number-crunching skills and their data-mining tools as it is for scientists in bio medical research labs. And one potentially powerful big-data approach to conquering cancer—which involves discovering clever genetic tricks to make cancer cells kill themselves—has moved in a promising new direction this month.

Scottish, Israeli, and American researchers have reported a new discovery that analyzes existing cancer gene databases  for clues to combinations of genes that together can kill tumor cells while leaving healthy cells untouched. The idea takes advantage of a phenomenon called synthetic lethalty, which in oncology was first explored 17 years ago as a potentially fruitful new line of cancer treatment.

One of the new paper’s coauthors, Eytan Ruppin, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, says cancer cells are like regular cells run amok. They, like regular cells, typically have some 10,000 genes. But in cancer cells, many more of these genes are inactive—meaning that for whatever reasons, those genes don’t produce the proteins that a healthy version of the cell would be producing.

Since the 1920s, it’s been observed that all cells in fact have networks of secret self-destruct switches: When both of a key pair of genes become inactive, the entire cell begins the process of shutdown and cell death.

So, Ruppin says, the hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to make this possible broad-spectrum genetic cancer treatment work is discovering and cataloging as many of these secret “synthetically lethal” (SL) gene pair combinations as nature has provided. Then, when a patient’s cancer is biopsied, and its genome is taken, an oncologist can look to see which genes in the patient’s cancer cells are inactive.

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