Abnormal ageing gene linked to blood cancer

19 August 2013

A variant of a gene that helps control ageing in humans by acting as a cell’s internal clock has been linked to blood cancer in a major new study by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London.

The study also found three other genetic variants linked to myeloma,  one of the most common types of blood cancer. The finding brings the total number of genetic variants linked to myeloma to seven.

Myeloma causes white blood cells, called plasma cells, to grow uncontrollably in the bone marrow and become stuck there, disrupting normal blood production. It can be very painful, and affects bones in multiple parts of the body.

The genetic marker found by the researchers is linked to a gene called TERC, which regulates the length of DNA ‘caps’ on the ends of chromosomes called telomeres. In healthy cells, these caps erode over time, causing tissues to age, but some cancer cells seem able to ignore the ageing trigger and keep on dividing. If further studies confirm the link, TERC could be a target for future myeloma treatments.

The ICR team compared the DNA of myeloma patients with DNA from people without the disease, using data from thousands of patients from the UK and Germany. All of the four new genetic variants are close to genes which are likely to play important roles in causing myeloma.

Study co-leader Professor Richard Houlston, Professor of Molecular and Population Genetics at The Institute of Cancer Research, said, “Our study has taken an important step forward in understanding the genetics of myeloma, and suggested an intriguing potential link with a gene that acts as a cell’s internal timer.

“We know cancer often seems to ignore the usual controls over ageing and cell death, and it will be fascinating to explore whether in blood cancers that is a result of a direct genetic link. Eventually, understanding the complex genetics of blood cancers should allow us to assess a person’s risk or identify new avenues for treatment.”

Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said, “The identification of these risk gene variants offers more compelling evidence that susceptibility to myeloma can be inherited.  Myeloma remains incurable and the effect on patients’ quality of life can be devastating.

“By showing how these specific genes influence the cancer’s development, this research could potentially lead to the development of targeted myeloma drugs in the future. In addition we know that a common condition called MGUS predisposes to the development of myeloma. The identification of additional genetic risk factors in these patients could revolutionise their future management and prospects.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Genetics, was mainly funded by charities Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and Myeloma UK, with additional support from Cancer Research UK.


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