Cancer breakthrough as zombie gene comes back from the dead

24 Aug 2011

A ‘zombie’ gene, which was believed by scientists to be dead, has now proved to be alive, according to the results of the research carried out by DCU researcher, Dr. Anne Parle-McDermott, with important implications for cancer research.

The research will be of relevance in the treatment of a number of common conditions including cancer and spina bifida.

The research project, funded by the Health Research Board of Ireland, was led by Dr Anne Parle-McDermott of the School of Biotechnology. The results have just been published in the prestigious US research journal, ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.’

“Using advances in DNA analysis techniques and the completion of the Human Genome sequence, we have demonstrated that DHFRL1 is not a dead gene, but is very much ‘alive’ and functional,” Dr Parle-McDermott.

“This now brings into question the many other so-called human pseudogenes, and whether or not they are also alive.

“Our findings call for a reassessment of many human pseudogenes and urges researchers to challenge the assumptions made in the past. It is possible that given the many of the thousands of known pseudogenes, many more may not be zombies at all”, she said.

Significant global finding – implications for cancer treatment

The finding could also be significant in spina bifida research since the DHFR ‘zombie’ gene is involved in the regulation of folic acid. As a result, it may now be possible to develop a test to warn if a woman is at higher risk of having a baby with the condition.

The gene also represents a new drug target that may improve cancer treatment. While its very close relative is currently used as a target in chemotherapy regimes, treatments so far have not considered DHFRL1.

Cancer treatments may be more successful if drugs are designed to also deactivate the DHFR zombie gene.

“Once again, Irish health research and Irish researchers have made a significant discovery on the Irish and global stage,” Enda Connolly, chief executive at the Health Research Board explained.

“Not only do their findings offer the potential for improved leukaemia treatment, but it could re-write what we thought we knew about so-called zombie genes and open up countless new avenues for cancer treatment in general,” Connolly said.