Scientists have discovered more about the mysterious role of epigenetics, the study of how genes change, in controlling how tumors develop.
Often called “dark matter,” it could alter the way cancer is detected and treated, suggests research from the Cancer Research Institute.
And it could lead to new forms of disease testing that would help tailored treatments.
But that’s a long way off, with research still at an early stage.
When most people think about genetics, they think about the structural changes in the DNA code that are passed down from generation to generation.
As a result, there has been tremendous attention to how these genetic mutations drive the growth of tumors.
But, in recent years, scientists have discovered another not-so-simple phenomenon called epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of how an individual’s behavior and environment can cause changes that affect the way their genes work.
Your epigenetics changes with age and in response to where you live and how you live.
Epigenetics does not alter the DNA code, but it can control access to genes and is increasingly seen as an important role in the development of cancer.
Professor Trevor Graham, director of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: ‘We have unveiled an extra layer of control over how tumors behave, something we liken to the’ dark matter ‘of cancer. “.
He told the BBC that there can be “tangles in the DNA lines” as they fold into each cell and this can change the genes that are read.
The location of the tangles can be very important in determining how tumors behave, he added.
‘It will not change clinical care tomorrow, but it could be an avenue for the development of new therapies,’ said Professor Graham.
Genetic testing for cancer mutations, such as BRCA which increases breast cancer risk, for example, offer only part of someone’s cancer picture.
“By testing both genetic and epigenetic changes, we could potentially predict much more accurately which treatments will work best for a particular person’s cancer,” said Prof. Graham.
The findings are published in two articles in Nature: the first analyzed more than 1,300 samples from 30 intestinal tumors, showing that epigenetic changes were very common in cancer cells and helped them grow more than other cells.
The second article looked at many samples taken from different parts of the same tumor. He found that the way cancer cells develop is often governed by factors other than DNA mutations.
The researchers say their findings cannot prove that epigenetic changes directly lead to alterations in how tumors behave and that more work needs to be done to prove this occurs.