Associate Professor of Biology Erik Larson and his team are continuing to explore the link between genetics and cancer, thanks to a $362,500 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
With the newest grant, Larson and his students will be examining certain human genes that are prone to damage. “There is a normal process in all of our cells that protects against DNA alterations,” said Larson. “When that pathway is gone or disrupted, people are predisposed to getting certain types of cancer.”
Researchers understand that certain genes in the genome encode for signals that tell cells when to divide. When these genes damaged they are called oncogenes, and they then signal cells to proliferate out of control. “Oncogenes are the architects of cancer, creating a genetic situation where cells will not stop dividing,” said Larson. “When cells divide out of control tumors are the result.”
Oncogenes are prone to instability. Larson points out many gene other sequences may also be unstable, but it is easy to notice when oncogenes have issues. “Whether or not oncogenes are more unstable than other genes is hard to say, but when they are unstable, it causes a big problem. It causes cancer.”
Larson and his team will research how normal repair processes function at genetically unstable oncogenes. This will help them develop a molecular rationale for DNA instability.
“We have systems set up in the lab where we can test the instability of specific oncogenes,” said Larson. The team is working to identify how cells repair damage in those specific gene regions. “Very simply, understanding the shared characteristics of unstable oncogenes helps us understand why good genes sometimes turn bad.”
Larson and his team are checking to see if DNA repair efficiency is reduced by certain unstable sequences commonly found in oncogenes. “Doing that, we hope to figure out the molecular basis for oncogene instability. And that gives us a better understanding of how a wide range of unrelated cancers can develop from otherwise normal tissue.”