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Is Cancer the Next of Kin to the Developing Foetus?

Foetus

Mutations in the PAX genes lead to developmental abnormalities of organs and tissues in which they are switched on.

By Mike Eccles

A gene that is important for the development of the foetus may hold new clues to how cancer cell division gets out of control, and guide the identification of new targets for cancer therapy.

Professor Mike Eccles is NZICRT Chair in Cancer Pathology in the Department of Pathology, Dunedin School of Medicine, the University of Otago.

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Genes that are critically involved in the development of the foetus can sometimes go out of control, and when that happens they may become associated with cancer. While this idea is not new, it has been borne out by a multitude of examples over the past few decades of cancer research. Understanding its significance may provide answers to stop many cancers in their tracks.

The PAX genes (PAX1 to PAX9) are an example of a small family of developmental genes that are active in cancer. These genes are important because of their essential role in the development of certain organs and tissues, such as the brain, in species as diverse as humans and fruitflies. Mutations in the PAX genes lead to developmental abnormalities of organs and tissues in which they are switched on.

In the early 1990s my group was one of the first to report that PAX genes are abnormally active in human cancer tissues. The significance of expression of PAX genes in cancer was not apparent at that time. Since then my lab has shown that PAX genes are important for cancer cell growth and survival. Despite this knowledge, understanding exactly how and why PAX genes are able to regulate cancer cell growth and survival has remained elusive until recently.

We have now found that PAX8 controls the process by which cancer cells undergo cell division, implying that PAX8 is required for the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.