WEDNESDAY, March 21, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- In experiments with mice, researchers have uncovered a gene that may have the potential to suppress colorectal cancer.
The gene, called Atp5a1, is an essential part of any cell's energy-production system. In mice that had a mutation of this gene, the number of precancerous polyps in the digestive tract was reduced by about 95 percent, researchers said.
"We have identified a gene that is involved in energy synthesis and is a major modifier of colon cancer in mice," said lead researcher Arthur Buchberg, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the Kimmel Cancer Center, in Philadelphia. "When mutated, it dramatically reduces the number of polyps that form."
Finding this gene opens the potential for new targets for therapy, Buchberg said, adding that it may make it possible to destroy cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact.
"This gene mutation could actually be protective," Buchberg said. "No mutations in the gene Atp5a1 have been found in human cancers. But this finding suggests that if one of the copies of this gene is deleted from a cancer tumor, it might be a new type of therapy that would selectively destroy cancers."
The researchers have reason to believe this gene is important in maintaining the health of cells.
For example, in humans, this gene is located on chromosome 18, in an area that often shows genetic alterations in colon tumors. In addition, the tiny organisms that cause African sleeping sickness cause the loss of Atp5a1 gene function, which leads to death, the researchers said.
According to Buchberg, mice that have two copies of the mutated Atp5a1 gene die during embryonic development, likely because of insufficient energy production.
In further animal research, Buchberg plans to target the gene to see if his theory about the gene's ability to kill cancer cells directly is valid. Using this gene-therapy approach could work against cancers other than colorectal malignancies, he said.
The findings are published in the March 22 online edition of Genome Research.
Dr. Durado Brooks, director of prostate and colorectal cancers at the American Cancer Society, cautioned that modern medicine is still years away from using gene therapy to treat cancers.
"The idea of modifying genes that we know are related to the development of cancer hold promise, but right now, I am not aware of any clinical human application," he said.
This study is an interesting first step, Brooks said, "but we are years away from any clinical application in humans."
Brooks said he was also concerned that not enough is known about the potential downside of gene treatments. "There is always a question when you tinker with nature what you are going to end up with at the far side," he said.
For more information on colon cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.