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Battle of the DNA bulge may help thwart cancer

HOUSTON, Sept 7, 2003 Studies at the University of Houston are shedding light on the mechanisms our bodies use to recognize and repair mistakes in our genetic code, mistakes that, left unchecked, could lead to cancer.

DNA is the body's blueprint found in every cell, and it carries all our genetic information. Every time a living cell divides to make new cells, it must first make a copy of its DNA, or transcribe it, similar to the way monks used to transcribe old scrolls. If a DNA transcription error is made, the body's "spellcheckers" may find it and fix it. But if they fail to detect and repair the mistake, the cell's instructions are altered.

"When a mistake gets through, you have a problem that could lead to a dangerous mutation," says B. Montgomery Pettitt, the Hugh Roy and Lille Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UH. "If that mistake has turned a good instruction into a bad instruction that says 'please make nonsense,' then that could lead to cancer."

Pettitt and his research group are studying a particular type of DNA transcription error called a bulge, as well as the protein "spellcheckers" responsible for finding and repairing bulges.

"Some of the worst places to get these errors are in the genes that determine cell growth and death," Pettitt says. "One of the characteristics of cancer cells is that they are essentially immortal, and they're like Peter Pan they never grow up. So this inhibiting of normal cell death is one of the real problems."

Ultimately, the UH studies may lead to more targeted cancer treatments, says Pettitt, who also is director of the Institute for Molecular Design at UH.

Pettitt will present his research on DNA bulges and recognition proteins Sept. 7 at the 226th annual American Chemical Society national meeting in New York, N.Y.

Pettit's work describing DNA bulges comes fifty years after scientists first described what the normal structure of DNA looks like a ladder twisted i
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Contact: Eric Gerber
egerber@uh.edu
713-743-8189
University of Houston
7-Sep-2003


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