UK scientists have identified a gene, called OPCML, which appears to be switched off in the early stages of ovarian cancer. The researchers, based at Cancer Research UK's (CRUK) oncology unit in Edinburgh, also found that when they put working versions of OPCML into ovarian tumours, they stopped growing. 'This is a very important discovery in identifying what seems to be a key tumour suppressor gene in ovarian cancer', said team leader Hani Gabra. The findings are published in this month's Nature Genetics.
Cancer starts when just one body cell starts to grow and proliferate in an unregulated way - the result of changes in genes that usually control these processes. The scientists studied tumour samples from 118 women affected by the disease, and found that the OPCML gene was switched off in nearly 90 per cent of them. The gene normally encodes a protein that helps ovary cells stick together, and loss of this protein appears to encourage cancerous growth. The gene is 'frequently' switched off in the early stages of the disease, 'but when we switch it back on in the cancer cells, tumours are suppressed' said Gabra. 'We now need to work on understanding more about this gene and exactly how it works and what makes it switch off' she added. The research could lead to new drugs that mimic the effects of the protein produced by the OPCML gene, and so might halt the spread of ovarian cancer.
Over 4000 women die from ovarian cancer in the UK every year. The disease does not produce any symptoms in its early stages, so it is hard to detect. 'Ovarian cancer is difficult to treat unless it is caught early', said Dr John Toy, CRUK's medical director, adding that 'this work still has a long way to go, but the results so far are promising'.