Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) scientists under the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore are part of an international team of researchers who became the first in the world to discover the gene behind a rare skin cancer which grows rapidly for a few weeks before healing spontaneously.
The peculiar behavior of this rare self-healing cancer, called multiple self-healing squamous epithelioma (MSSE), was discovered to be caused by a failure in the gene called TGFBR1, which is a key component of a signaling pathway that can also be impaired in other cancers. This pathway is widely regarded in the field as a potential target for therapeutic intervention in cancer treatment.
Dr. David Goudie, a Clinical Genetics consultant at Dundee University and a long term specialist in MSSE, said, "The unusual behavior of this tumor has baffled scientists for over 40 years, so we're excited to have discovered the genetic faults that cause the disease. Understanding how tumors that lack TGFBR1 behave will surely help us to predict the clinical effects of drugs that target these cancer-promoting or cancer-inhibiting signals."
However, Professor Birgit Lane cautioned, "The TGFBR1 gene is also part of a very important cell signaling system that is essential for many normal processes. Though it has been implicated in many other cancers before now, one cannot just go around blocking its function indiscriminately. We hope that this new found knowledge on an unusual self-healing tumor will open a door to new ways of tweaking the cell machinery more selectively in cancer therapy."
About TGFBR1 and MSSE
The TGFBR1 (Transforming Growth Factor (Beta), Receptor 1) gene makes a receptor protein through which healthy cells receive messages from their neighbors, instructing them to carry out processes essential to normal growth and development. Normally, TGFBR1 messages help block the growth of early tumors of various types. But cancer cells can interpret these messages very differently. For cancers that have managed to start growing, TGFBR1 actually promotes their growth and spread instead.
Interestingly, the reverse happens in the self-healing tumors that have an inherited fault in the TGFBR1 gene. MSSE patients with faulty TGFBR1 develop lots of small tumors -- but at some point there is a switch in behavior and the tumors lacking TGFBR1 start to shrink and heal by themselves. Scientists do not yet fully understand how this happens but the result of this study has raised new approaches to studying this important signaling system and its relation to cancer.
MSSE is an extremely rare disease, with only a handful of new cases diagnosed each year. International translational collaborations between doctors and scientists, like the one underlying this study, are critical to allow for scientific breakthroughs to be made that could lead to possible cancer therapy.
Illustration: Microsoft clipart.
Agency for Science, Technology, & Research News Release (02/28/11)
University of Dundee News Release (02/28/11)
Science Daily (03/10/11)
e! Science News (03/10/11)
Abstract (Nature Genetics; 43, 365-369 (02/27/11))