A key gene that normally suppresses cancer has been identified by researchers, offering an important new focus for treating the disease, scientists reported Wednesday.
Loss of the gene was detected in a broad range of cancers, including 60% of breast cancer cases and 82% of one type of brain tumor.
"It's very close to the action of cell division. When it's broken, destroyed (or) mutated, cell division is left out of control," said Dr. Mark Skolnik of the University of Utah Medical Center.
The newly identified tumor-suppressing gene, called p16, appears even more significant than the previously identified p53 gene, which is believed to be a major factor in fighting colon, breast, liver and other cancers, said Alexander Kamb of Utah-based Myriad Genetics Inc., who helped lead the p16 research.
The p16 gene controls the production of an enzyme that inhibits cell growth in cancer genes and p53 does not, he said.
Cancer researchers are increasingly turning their attention to suppressor genes, which brake uncontrolled cell division.
Damage to these suppressor cells--by chemicals in cigarette smoke, ultraviolet light, radiation or other carcinogens--may be the chief cause of cancer, Kamb said at the annual meeting of the American Assn. for Cancer Research, in San Francisco.
P16 may not be the "magic bullet" that ties all cancers together, but it is a major step, Kamb said.
"It looks really promising as a major player in human cancers," he said.
Discovery of the p16 gene--called MTS1 by the Utah team--was first announced by David Beach of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York late last year.
The Utah team researched the gene's role in fighting tumors and is publishing its findings in the Friday issue of Science.