Are cancer cells confused?

Scientists have recently discovered that the gene EDD is implicated in the development of breast and ovarian cancer. And like the horse, this gene is into talking.

“Cancer arises from defects in cell growth and division. We are now beginning to realise that defective cellular communication can also lead to cancer,” says Professor Rob Sutherland, Director of the Cancer Research Program at Garvan Institute.

Cells “talk” to each other in the developing embryo to coordinate themselves into higher structures like organs and blood vessels. Vigilant communication and coordination between cells is essential throughout life to maintain these structures.

Part of EDD’s job is to tell cells where to go. Garvan scientists have shown that mice without EDD have the cells to make blood vessels but they are unable to coordinate their development. Without EDD cells become confused.

Cancer is often caused by cells producing too many copies of key cancer genes. Work at Garvan has demonstrated that excess copies of the EDD gene are present in 73% of one aggressive type of ovarian cancer and that excessive amounts of the EDD protein are found in 63% of breast cancers and 39% of ovarian cancers. Garvan research aims to define whether too much EDD is crucial to the development of these cancers.

“We now anticipate that this research will have practical applications,” says Garvan Scientist Jennifer Clancy.

Jennifer is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the media as part of the national Fresh Science competition.

“We are currently looking at whether excess levels of EDD can help us predict the behaviour of a cancer. This could assist doctors in deciding how best to treat future cancer patients.”

Key questions of how altered levels of EDD lead to cellular confusion, and whether this leads to cancer, are current areas of research at Garvan.

“We expect that future work will yield more clues to the function of this fascinating gene and the role of communication in the development of cancer,” says Jennifer Clancy, “More importantly, one day this research may provide better treatment options to future cancer patients.”

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