Discovery of Genetic “Brakes” May Slow or Stop Cancer

April 20, 2009 06:27 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions may be slowed or stopped by the new finding, and could lead to new treatments and even cures for these ailments.

Genetic Hope for Autoimmune Diseases

A recent study conducted by the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh has discovered genetic “brakes” that could slow down or entirely halt autoimmune diseases such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. Scientists previously believed that “master” genes controlled the growth of cells that cause these conditions. However, the new study found that hundreds of genes interact, and that the variations within this genetic network explain the different ways in which people develop diseases. The complete findings of the study are published in the Nature Genetics journal.
The study examined the genes involved with white blood cells (or macrophages). These cells are responsible for cleansing the human body of harmful bacteria and viruses. At times, these macrophages start growing uncontrollably, leading to the development of cancer, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, arthritis and other illnesses. The discovery of the complicated genetic network that controls these processes, and of the multiple ways in which genes can interact, allows scientists to focus on the development of tumors. According to The Scotsman, “it is hoped it will soon be possible to stop the growth of tumours, or enable the growth of healthy cells.”

Professor David Hume, director of the Roslin Institute, told The Scotsman that this study opens a whole new field in medical science, and “could lead to treatments and cures for many diseases of the immune system."

Background: Multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases

The study is of key importance for gaining a better understanding of cancer, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly turns against the body’s own tissue. According to a spokesperson from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, "Every day researchers are learning more and more about the genetic make up of MS and anything that helps put the pieces of this complex puzzle together must be a good thing.”

The study has also shed light on new information about the immune system that could allow doctors to understand the different ways in which patients respond to immunotherapies, permitting them to adjust these treatments accordingly. Researchers also hope that this discovery will lead to the development of new treatments for conditions such as arthritis and myeloid leukemia.

Related Topic: Genes could control fear

According to a study led by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Greifswald in Germany, there are two gene variants that contribute to the development of fear and the ability to overcome it. A 2008 study conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University also suggested that genes might determine the shifts in the types of fears that children have during their development. Young children, for example, tend to be more afraid of things that would have endangered humans throughout the ages, such as snakes, than they are of modern dangers. As they grow older, social and environmental factors teach them to fear newer dangers.

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