MSFHR funding supports discovery of gene linking rare cancers

21 December 2011

Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and UBC are excited over the discovery of a single gene linked to mutations in rare, seemingly unrelated cancers.

A research team led by Dr. David Huntsman (2002 and 2007 MSFHR scholar) and Dr. Gregg Morin, (scientific director of the BC Proteomics Network, one of five Technology/Methodology Platforms funded by MSFHR in 2007) published the findings Dec. 21 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The research team set about sequencing rare ovarian, uterine, and testicular tumors, expecting to find that their genomes would be distinct with specific, differing abnormalities. They were amazed to discover the same fundamental mutation in the DICER gene showed up as the common process underlying all the different cancers they examined.

The DICER gene plays an important role in maintaining health. It has as a “factory style” function, chopping up microRNA molecules to activate them. These microRNA molecules in turn control hundreds of other genes.

“This discovery shows researchers that these mutations change the function of DICER so that it participates directly in the initiation of cancer, but not in a typical “on-off” fashion,” said Dr. Morin. “DICER can be viewed as the conductor for an orchestra of functions critical for the development and behaviour of normal cells. The mutations we discovered do not totally destroy the function of DICER rather they warp it—the orchestra is still there but the conductor is drunk.”

This study is the third of a series of papers published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine in which the Ovarian Cancer Research team has used new genomic technologies to unlock the molecular basis of poorly understood types of ovarian cancer. This breakthrough is particularly pivotal because it could lead to solutions for treatment of more common cancers.