A New Cancer Mechanism: Failed Cell Housekeeping

Mutations found in genes that normally help cells dispose of defective RNA

illustration of four separate twisting strands of RNA, each with one backbone with spoke-like nucleotides poking out at regular intervals
Illustration of single-stranded RNA. Image: luismmolina/iStock/Getty Images Plus

At a glance:

  • Researchers have identified gene mutations that cause cancer in a previously unknown way.
  • Affected cells lose the ability to get rid of defective strands of RNA.
  • The findings apply to many different cancers and could lead to development of better treatments for them.

Cancer can stem from mutations in many different genes.

New research pinpoints a gene that, when mutated, causes cancer through a mechanism scientists haven’t seen before: cells lose the ability to dispose of their trash, namely defective strands of RNA.

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This mechanism appears to cut across many different malignancies and could present a whole new set of molecules for cancer drugs to target, as reported April 21 in Science by a team from Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

While studying zebrafish, Megan Insco, HMS instructor in medicine who was a research fellow in the lab of Leonard Zon at HMS and Boston Children’s at the time, identified a tumor-suppressing gene called CDK13. When mutated, it expedited the development of melanoma.

The vacuum cleaner was broken, so the RNAs were building up.

Megan Insco

HMS instructor in medicine