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November 25, 2015

Targeting cancer at its roots: researchers find the shape of DNA can affect the ability of brain tumour cells to grow

TORONTO – Glioblastoma is the most aggressive cancerous brain tumour in adults and remains one of the most difficult of the cancers to treat.  Offered radiation therapy and chemotherapy, 1,500 Canadian adults every year begin treatment knowing that with an average survival of 15 months, glioblastoma will soon take over their brain, with fatal consequences. Glioblastoma also affects about 150 children in Canada every year.

New research led by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) has found clues to how glioblastoma and possibly other cancers proliferate. Scientists have found that the 3D structure of DNA, or the way that DNA is folded in a cancer cell, can determine its ability to generate more cancer cells and maintain tumour growth. The study is published in the November 25 online edition of Cancer Cell.

The researchers identified a new function for a protein called histone 3.3 (H3.3). This protein is needed to fold or shape the DNA in its normal structure. In adult glioblastoma cells this protein occurs in lower than normal levels. Lower levels of this protein give rise to an irregular DNA shape, which prevents the cells from maturing. The cells are locked in a stem cell state, producing a small pool of cells in the glioblastoma called cancer stem cells.

“Although these cells are not numerous in a tumour, they are nonetheless fundamental to its growth, as they provide an everlasting supply of progeny that constitute the bulk of the tumour and drive tumour growth,” says Dr. Marco Gallo, first author of the study and SickKids post-doctoral fellow.

Researchers were also able to determine how levels of H3.3 are suppressed. They identified a protein in glioblastoma stem cells which turns off the gene responsible for producing the DNA folding protein.

According to Dr. Peter Dirks, co-principal investigator of the study, Staff Neurosurgeon and Senior Scientist at SickKids, this is the first study to make a link between the overall architecture of DNA and the tumour-propagating properties of cancer cells.  In this investigation, the scientists were able to change the shape of the DNA by controlling the levels of the folding protein and by exposing the tumour cells to two drugs known to affect DNA structure. By changing the shape in this manner, the scientists were able to reduce the tumour cells’ ability to divide and grow.

“Our findings offer proof-of-principle that new drugs that alter DNA structure hold promise to suppress cancer stem cells’ ability to replenish the tumour, offering new weapons to attack cancer cells at its roots,” says Dirks, who is also Principal Investigator at The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre at SickKids and Professor of Neurosurgery and Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Mathieu Lupien from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – University Health Network is the co-principal investigator of the study.  

The research is supported by Genome Canada, Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, SickKids Foundation, Jessica’s Footprint, Hopeful Minds Foundation, BrainChild, the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the National Institutes of Health, and The Structural Genomics Consortium.

About The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost paediatric health-care institutions and is Canada’s leading centre dedicated to advancing children’s health through the integration of patient care, research and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and has generated discoveries that have helped children globally.  Its mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized family-centred care; pioneer scientific and clinical advancements; share expertise; foster an academic environment that nurtures health-care professionals; and champion an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. SickKids is proud of its vision for Healthier Children. A Better World. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca.

For more information, please contact:

Caitlin McNamee-Lamb
The Hospital for Sick Children
416-813-7654 ext 201436

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children