Slime genes unlock secrets of colon cancer

Queensland researchers have discovered new genes that are important in producing the ‘slime’ that protects the human colon from cancer-causing agents.

Currently about one in 23 Australians are likely to develop colorectal cancer, a disease that attacks the lining of the colon and rectum at the end of the human digestive system.

The discovery of the new genes means that researchers now have a better handle on what causes colorectal cancer, which is known to develop from a series of genetic changes.

Dr Stephanie Williams of the Mater Medical Research Institute (MMRI) in Brisbane presented the results of her PhD project at ScienceNOW! today (4 May) in Melbourne.

Dr Williams says that the newly discovered genes are thought to be very important to normal functioning of the colon.

“If these genes are not functioning properly to produce their protective slime then this could be a very important step in colorectal cancer formation,” she says.

Mucus or ‘slime’ is typically found coating the digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems within human bodies.

“The genes we have discovered are different to the genes already identified for producing this typical slime,” Dr Williams says.

“The structure of the new slime genes indicates they produce proteins that relay signals across the cell membranes lining the colon.”

Dr Williams started her research five years ago under the direction of Dr Toni Antalis and Professor David Gotley of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research.

She is continuing her research looking at the precise function of the newly discovered genes with MMRI’s Dr Mike McGuckin.

“We want to find out whether poor function of these genes is a cause or an effect of colorectal cancer,” Dr William says.

“Our experiments indicate that the poor function of these genes means colon cells are exposed to a more harsh environment through a lack of slime coating.”

Dr Williams says the discovery of the new genes may also be relevant in other diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, cystic fibrosis and breast cancer.

“One of the genes we discovered has an extremely high level of expression in most human breast cancers we’ve looked at,” she says.

“This could be an important way to monitor the success of breast cancer treatment through blood tests.”

The researchers hold a patent on the new genes and are seeking industry support for commercialisation.

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