Genetic markings could spot cancer before it develops

Dr Muy Teck-Tey
Dr Muy Teck-Tey – Photo credit QMUL

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found 4 unique gene markers that could predict the risk of developing head and neck cancer. These markers mean that very soon we should be able to pick up the tell-tale signs of cancer before it’s visible with simple, cheap blood or saliva tests. The findings have been published in the journal Cancer. The research was partially funded by Saving Faces.

Each cell in our body has about 30,000 genes, but not all genes are switched on and making proteins in every cell at the same time. For instance, it would be disastrous if a liver cell started making bone, skin and heart proteins. The study of how and when genes are switched on and off is called epigenetics. The most common type of “switch” involves adding a methyl group (a molecule with one carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms) to the target gene’s DNA. When this process, called DNA methylation, goes wrong it can switch on cancer-causing genes and switch off protective genes.

The scientists analysed tumour tissue from Norwegian and UK patients with head and neck cancer. These specimens were compared with non-cancerous tissue from the same patients as well as normal samples from otherwise healthy patients who had routine surgery. The team identified four genes in the cancer cells which were either under- or over-active when compared to the healthy cells. The research which was partly funded by Saving Faces – The Facial Surgery Research Foundation, means that it will be easier to detect changes simply by testing the patient’s saliva or blood before the cancer is visible.

Lead Researcher Dr Muy Teck-Teh, from the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary said, “In this study we have identified four genes which behaved abnormally in head and neck cancer tissue. The expression of these four genes, with particular DNA methylation switches, suggests that the genes are epigenetically modified in head and neck cancer.”

“We are at the discovery stage at the moment but these markers could be clinically exploited as biomarkers for early pre-cancer screening of head and neck cancer. Epigenetic DNA markers escape from the cancer cells and travel around the body in the blood. Therefore we can often measure them non-invasively in saliva or blood without the needs for actually taking tissue from the cancer itself.”

Consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon, Professor Iain Hutchison is founder of Saving Faces and co-author of the study. He explained why he is excited by the results of this study. “All of us mouth cancer surgeons want to catch the cancer early when the chances of cure are high and the effects on the patient of the study are minimal. This test should prove particularly valuable in helping patients with pre-cancer changes in the mouth or throat. Many of these patients will never go on to develop a real cancer. This test could help reassure those patients who are never likely to develop cancer and reduce health care costs by only seeing them if they develop specific problems rather than regularly reviewing them in out-patient clinics. Conversely, it should pick up those few patients with pre-cancer who are likely to, or who have actually developed cancer without any visible change. This will enable them to be treated with very minor surgery resulting in a 90% chance of cure, minimal side effects and lower health care costs.”

“The test could also be used to more accurately monitor patients who’ve had cancer, picking up recurrences earlier so the chances of treatment success are vastly improved.”

“If head and neck cancers are not caught early then the treatment, which is very costly, only has a 50% chance of success and often causes the most extreme social problems with facial disfigurement and difficulty speaking and eating. On the other hand, if cancer is caught it has a very high cure rate.”
This study builds on previous studies Dr Teh and his team have done on the gene, FOXM1. Published in 2009, Dr Teh found that nicotine could activate FOXM1 and that excessive levels could cause normal human mouth cells to develop into cancer. His research on FOXM1 was awarded ‘Molecule of the Year 2010’ by the International Society for Molecular and Cell Biology and Biotechnology Protocols and Research for its pivotal role in cancer stem-cell biology.

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