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‘A Holy Grail’: New Clues To Cancer-Preventing Gene

The findings could eventually help to diagnose patients earlier and prescribe safer treatments.

In a world first, scientists in Melbourne have discovered how a key cancer-fighting gene --  involved in half of all cancers -- works to prevent the disease.

An international study, led by researchers at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the University of Melbourne, identified a number of genes involved in the body’s normal DNA repair that help the key ‘p53’ gene to stop the spread of cancers.

Co-lead author Dr Anna Janic told ten daily the findings, coined the “holy grail” for cancer researchers, could help to identify patients with an increased cancer risk and prescribe more targeted treatments.

The researchers found particular genes are critical in p53’s role in preventing cancer development. Picture: Getty

For about 25 years, researchers have known of p53, a ‘super tumour suppressor’ that works to slow down cell division or instruct a rogue cell to die.

“If p53 is defunct, a cell would not die and it would start copying, which can introduce mistakes in our genum. These types of mutations could potentially lead to the development of aggressive cancers,” Dr Janic explained.

"Up until now, we haven’t known that DNA repair is the major process that is critical for p53 to work as a tumour suppressor."

Using genetic screening, Janic’s team found the DNA repair gene MLH1, and other related genes, worked to to prevent the development of B-cell lymphoma.

When these genes were removed, p53 malfunctioned and cancer developed, with tumour development “significantly stalled” when they were re-introduced.

“If a patient has lymphoma with a mutation that disables the DNA repair mechanism, doctors will now know how to avoid certain DNA-damaging treatments, like chemotherapy, that may only make the cancer more aggressive,” she said.

The findings could help to diagnose earlier and safely treat cancers. Image: Getty

The findings have implications for other types of cancers, with p53 mutated in close to 70 percent of colon and pancreatic cancers, according to Janic.

While they may take several years to translate into clinical practice, she said the discovery was "absolutely novel for us and for the field".

“We can now look towards adjusting treatments in the future and looking at p53 in a different way.”