Dr Moshe Szyf
You could say that Canadian Cancer Society researcher Dr Moshe Szyf is studying the ultimate owner’s manual – one for the human body.
Dr Szyf is a pioneer in the study of epigenetics, described as the second genetic code. While our genes act as a kind of blueprint for designing our body – for example, determining our hair colour or height – the epigenome provides the instructions by telling our genes what to do, where to do it and when to do it.
While scientists are still deciphering the epigenome, what is known is that numerous chemicals in our bodies control which sets of genes are switched on in any given cell. In effect, these chemicals give cells instructions on how they should function. The epigenome regulates this entire chemical switching system, explains Dr Szyf.
When this switching system is working properly, the chemicals produced by the epigenome activate the appropriate set of genes in different cells, critical for the normal functioning of the body. In cancer cells, this process is disrupted, leading to the inappropriate turning on of genes. Then this can stimulate inappropriate cell growth, silence genes that control cell growth, and turn on genes that are necessary for metastasis.
“If we can understand these switching mechanisms, we might be able to identify targets for anti-cancer therapy,” says Dr Szyf.
With Society funding, Dr Szyf and his research team at McGill University are studying some of the specific chemicals that prompt genes to produce tumours and prompt the metastasis of those tumours.
Specifically, the researchers have found that when the chemical protein DNMT1 is inappropriately activated, it is responsible for transforming normal resting cells into abnormally dividing cancer cells. Subsequently, they found that the protein AUF1 keeps DNMT1 in check, preventing the development of cancer cells. The researchers also found all the chemical partners of AUF1, thus identifying new potential targets for anti-cancer therapies.
These findings may mean that epigenetic changes to cells that make them malfunction may be reversible. That gives Dr Szyf hope about the future of cancer treatment.
“These findings provide new potential targets to prevent the growth of cancer by turning on or turning off genes that lead to disease,” says Dr Szyf. “Ultimately, epigenetics may change the future of medicine.”
Great progress has been made
Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.