Cancer’s Gene Struggles

It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place


Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Pikachu Bacteria

Similar to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, scientists have discovered a type of bacteria that live only on pure electrons. Found in the seabed, in mud or rocks, these bacteria survive by extracting electrons from the surface of nearby materials, and after processing them and using their energy, they excrete them.

Although it sounds like a very simple and basic organism, its way of life is actually quite smart. In more evolved beings like us humans, we use many complex molecules to obtain energy: sugar and oxygen, which turn into ATP, and all this respiration process to end up with energy for survival. These bacteria manage to eliminate these useless (to them) intermediates, and just function with the basic electrons. They go for the easy route, whilst we masochists use larger molecules when all we really need are the electrons in those molecules.

electricity bacteria

These unimaginable bacteria live in electricty and from that they can extract everything they need to survive

However, these are not the first bacteria found to have this peculiar lifestyle. Other species, like the Shewanella or Geobacte bacteria do pretty much the same thing, but the novelty in this case is that the new bacteria can be found in large numbers by just applying a slight current through some seabed rocks. The fascinating experiment studied the microbiome of said rocks and analysed it, to determine how much voltage each of the new 8 bacteria species needed to survive. This eventually led to the recreation of those conditions in a culture, using a battery and an electrode to supply the energy to the bacteria. This simple way of life also raised a question: How much do these bacteria essentially need to survive? If all they need is electrons, by constantly feeding them these in a set of electrodes, they could theoretically live forever.

And as always, what some would call ‘greedy scientists’ are looking for ways to earn some profit out of their discoveries. In this case, it’s the possibility of automated biomachines, where these robots could carry out jobs with no necessary electrical input, only their ability to use power from their surroundings.

Unruly HIV

HIV is still fighting back. After famous claims of having rid a baby of the HIV virus and therefore ‘curing’ it, a few months later the child seems to be affected again.

The news an 18 months old baby had been ‘cured’ from HIV spread like wildfire in the scientific community. This promising medical feat was accomplished by treating a newly-born baby, daughter of an HIV-sufferer, with three antiretroviral drugs (those drugs used to treat HIV). But after a period of 18 months, the treatment was stopped, and the baby left, and nothing more was known of her. Or at least that was the case until March this year, when during blood analysis, after almost a year with no drugs, the girl was found to have no HIV virus circulating in her blood.

This was praised by many scientists as being the solution to the HIV problem- providing the drug in the very early stages of the disease, a tactic which was already known to help treat more effectively the disease. But their hopes were crushed this week when in another check up the patient had plenty of the viruses in her body. This, together with high levels of the antibodies for this virus and a decrease in white blood cells, concluded she was no longer ‘cured’ from the disease.

A possible reason for this reappearance is the fact that HIV virus, although mostly found in the blood, can sometimes hide in other tissues, so when a person is treated with antiretroviral drugs, it only kills those virus cells in the blood. The effect the medicine had on the infant was of wiping out the virus in her blood, so that there were so few virus cells hidden in the rest of her body that her own immune system was capable of handling the rest. Obviously though, this balance was unstable and it was interrupted, setting off an increase in the virus population so the disease was in effect again.

hiv virus

This is an example of an HIV virus, which causes HIV and can lead to AIDS. Its cure has been sought after for a long time, and it seems we still have to work towards it

Researchers have concluded that there are other factors that control the limitations of the virus in the body, not only numbers, so it is their goal to find these and exploit them to increase the effect of antiretroviral drugs. This could ultimately lead to more effective drugs which could be taken less regularly but still maintain the virus at bay. Another objective is to develop a new treatment that targets the hidden virus cells too, so that the numbers can be reduced even further and maybe someday the virus can be completely wiped out from the body.

Superviruses: Worth the Risk?

We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.

Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.

Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.

Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.

The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.

In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.