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The Most Important Gene in Cancer Research

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 11/28/2009

The p53 gene has often been called 'the most important gene in cancer research.' Its prime functions are to make sure that cells with damaged DNA either repair themselves or commit suicide.

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    What Causes Cancer?

    Cancer is a disease of the cells in our bodies. There are millions of them, but the disease usually starts with just one. What appears to happen is that the genes which control how the cell divides and multiply are damaged in some way. The effect of this is that cell division goes out of control as the life cycle of the damaged cell is altered. It continues to divide, but its daughter cells are damaged too. Eventually the presence of so many damaged cells creates a tumour.

    We are all at risk of cancer and several factors are known to increase that risk such as smoking, radiation, unhealthy diet, chemicals, age, infection, a poor immune system, and individual genetic susceptibility. It is likely that the original cause of a cancer is a combination of these factors as not everyone who smokes, or sunbathes excessively without protection, or who has a poor diet will develop cancer.

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    The Importance of the p53 Gene and Cancer Prevention

    The p53 gene is important because it can stop a cell with damaged DNA from spreading. It sends signals to that cell which which will cause it to self destruct or begin repairs. If the p53 gene is damaged then potentially cancerous cells are allowed to survive. About half of all cancers are caused by faulty copies of p53, and perhaps unsurprisingly there is a great deal of research into p53 signalling and communication. This key tumour suppressor was discovered in 1979, and is the target of many novel cancer therapies and cancer prevention drug strategies. There are also books and websites devoted to this one specific gene.

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    Cancer Prevention and Wrap53

    Medical science now has a whole plethora of new cancer prevention routes to explore with the discovery of a gene called Wrap53. Located by scientists from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, this gene controls the activity of p53.

    Wrap53 produces antisense RNA. This molecule is needed to produce sufficient quantities of p53 protein when DNA is damaged. According to scientists involved in this research damaged Wrap53 can indirectly lead to cancer because it will cause a slowdown in the manufacture of p53 protein, and this will allow abnormal cells to proliferate.

    So whilst p53 may well be the most important gene in cancer research, Wrap53 is not far behind, and will also become the target of new cancer therapies.