Researchers Discover Process that Turns Cancer On and Off

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers at the University of Utah have discovered that when a specific pair of enzymes gets together, the two act like a switch that turns cancer and other birth defects on and off. The scientists believe that manipulating the two enzymes may lead to highly targeted treatment that can prevent tumor growth.

The research, published in the December issue of Cell used zebrafish that share genes similar to humans, uncovering a previously unknown process, called DNA methylation. David Jones, Ph.D., professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah and senior director of early translational research at the university's Huntsman Cancer Institute explains, "We could conceivably reactivate a completely normal gene in a tumor cell - a gene that could prevent the growth of a tumor if reactivated." Brad Cairns, Ph.D., HCI investigator and professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah says, "You can think of DNA methylation as an on-and-off switch."

Dr. Jones says, "We discovered a pair of enzymes that can remove methylated DNA, but if these enzymes work improperly, they will instead enhance the rate of mutations in methylated DNA and cause cancer progression."


Methylation is a process that promotes healthy cells and growth. When the process is disturbed, genes that keep the body in balance are shut off, or silenced. Turning methylation process on when it goes awry could turn cancer off, preventing tumor growth and cancer spread.

The study is the first to show that the coupling of 5-meC deaminase enzyme and Gadd45 results in very early stages of cancer. Gadd45 is a protein that sends stress signals to the cells in the body. The enzyme 5-meC deaminase plays a role in how our genes are programmed, acting either as protection or as a contributor to disease. "We believe this could be one of the earliest processes to go wrong in cancer. By manipulating these enzymes, we could possibly prevent or slow the onset of tumors, "says Jones.

The researchers believe they have uncovered an important process regarding how cancer develops. Further studies may show how scientists can genetically turn cancer cells on and off, leading to targeted therapies that can prevent cancer in humans.

Source: Newly Found Enzymes May Play Early Role in Cancer