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Genetic mutations re-set brain cells to cause brain cancer

22 October 2012

By Joseph Jebelli

Appeared in BioNews 678

A study on the most common type of brain cancer in humans has found that expressing cancer genes, also known as oncogenes, in fully developed brain cells can return them to an immature state that results in the formation of tumours. The findings challenge the current thinking that brain cancer only arises from stem cells

'What we're saying is, any cell in the brain that gets an oncogenic insult has the ability to dedifferentiate and form tumors', Dr Inder Verma, the team leader and geneticist who led the research at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, told The Scientist.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GMB), the cancer under investigation, accounts for over half of all human cases of brain cancer and is the most aggressive type. Its prognosis is very poor, with an average survival time of 12-14 months from diagnosis.

In the study, researchers injected viruses containing two cancer-related genes into the brains of mice. They then monitored the progression of the resulting tumours, called gliomas. The team expected the tumours to arise predominantly from neural stem cells that had taken up the genes. However results showed that mature brain cells, including neurons, also took up the genes and progressed into gliomas.

Dr Martine Roussel, a molecular biologist at St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, said in Science News: 'To me it says something very scary. With just the right combination of hits you can become a glioma'.

Eight weeks after the injection, the neurons displayed increased stem cell-like properties and decreased neuronal characteristics, suggesting the cells had reverted to a more immature state as the tumours developed.

It is not yet clear if mature neurons in humans can also return to a more immature state and subsequently develop into brain tumours, though early findings from Dr Verma's team suggest this may be the case. Dr Verma told The Scientist, 'by knowing the mechanism, we at least have a handle to start thinking about treatments'.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Los Angeles Times | 18 October 2012
Science | 18 October 2012
Science News | 18 October 2012
The Scientist | 18 October 2012


18 March 2013 - by Sarah Pritchard 
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28 January 2013 - by Reuben Harwood 
Nearly all cases of meningioma – the commonest kind of brain tumour – can be traced back to a fault in one of just five genes, scientists say...

30 July 2012 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
Some cases of glioblastoma - a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer - may be due a genetic mutation where two separate genes fuse into one, scientists report...
13 July 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
An international team of researchers based in the US and the UK have identified ‘genetic warning signs', or variants in genetic code which could be used to indicate a persons likelihood of developing glioma, the commonest form of brain tumour in the UK....
12 May 2009 - by Dr Charlotte Maden 
Scientists in the US have identified a gene that could allow cancer cells to enter the brain. The work, published in Nature, sheds new light on the spread of cancer, and could provide new therapeutic targets in the future. The most deadly aspect of cancer is metastasis...
01 February 2009 - by Alison Cranage 
Researchers in France have found a gene variant that may increase a person's risk of developing a brain tumour at a young age. The study was published last week in the journal Neurology by a team of researchers led by Dr Marc Sanson. The study included 254...
09 August 2004 - by BioNews 
A Department of Health advisory body has given permission for a trial of gene therapy to treat brain cancer. The trial, approved by the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (GTAC) on 2 August, seeks to build upon the positive results of earlier experiments: the first patient treated with the therapy is...

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