Junk DNA is not junk after all
Recently, scientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that ‘junk’ genetic material can switch off cancer tumours, preventing them from growing.
By using RNA to switch off a gene involved in controlling cell division, Oxford University scientists may have found a role for RNA in developing new cancer therapies. RNA is the mirror image of DNA, and is used to pass on instructions to the cell to build the proteins that run every body function.
The Human Genome Project found that human DNA carries approximately 34,000 genes that produce proteins. The remaining majority of the genome constituted what was considered to be junk DNA as it had no obvious function. However, this is set to change.
‘‘There has been a quiet revolution taking place in biology in past few years,’’ said Dr Alexandre Akoulitchev, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford. ‘‘Scientists have begun to see ‘junk’ DNA as having an important function. The variety of RNA types produced from this so called ‘junk’ is staggering and the functional implications are huge.”
Akoulitchev studied the RNA that regulates a gene called DHFR. This gene produces an enzyme that controls the production of molecules called tetrahydrofolate and thymine that cells need to divide rapidly.
“Switching off the DHFR gene could help prevent ordinary cells from developing into cancerous tumour cells, by slowing down their replication. In fact, one of the first anti-cancer drugs, Methotrexate, acts by binding and inhibiting the enzyme produced by this gene. Targeting the gene itself would cut the enzyme out of the picture altogether. Understanding how we can use RNA to switch off or inhibit DHFR and other genes may have important therapeutic implications for developing new anti-cancer treatments.”
This research was funded by The Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.
Original paper: Repression of the human dihydrofolate reductase gene by a non-coding interfering transcript was published in Nature on 22nd January 2006.
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