Could “Junk DNA” Be Key to Preventing Cancer?
When scientists completed mapping the human genome in 2003 they found that less than 2 percent of our approximately 20,000 genes code for proteins. They weren’t sure what these the non-coding genes were for and researchers dubbed them “junk DNA.”
Well, new research from British and American scientists suggests at least some of our non-coding DNA may be essential to disabling disease within our bodies. Their new study has identified a strand of non-coding RNA – transcribed from a stretch of junk DNA – that prevents cells from turning cancerous.
Within each of our cells, RNA acts as the helping hand of DNA by ferrying the genetic code needed to create proteins around the cell. RNA is made of nucleotides formed into a single strand, while DNA is similarly constructed from nucleotides formed into double strands.
Cancer begins when the cells replacing those that die begin to outnumber their predecessors. The control switch (which is genetic) gets stuck in the “on” position. As a tumor grows, cancer cells begin to break away, change shape, and burrow through tissues to the bloodstream where they migrate to other parts of the body. Spreading cancer is called metastasis, a process that requires a vast network of genes to regulate the changes of cell shape and mobilization.
Looking at a region of the genome that is often damaged by breast cancer, researchers singled out a strand of lncRNA, known as GNG12-AS1 as the culprit. The team decided to use smaller interfering RNAs to either stop it from being made or to degrade it immediately after it was formed.
When this lncRNA is working correctly, it performs two separate functions that help maintain healthy cells. First it regulates the levels of a neighboring gene involved in cell replication, and second, it suppresses the network of genes involved in metastasis.
Ultimately, any new information gleaned from this study should contribute to the development of innovative cancer treatments.
Don’t miss this week’s Slice of History: Longest Surgery: Feb.4-8, 1951