Genes Found That Label Cell Proteins For Disposal

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered three genes crucial to the survival of cells. The genes select cellular proteins for the disposal and eventual recycling of their components.

Because some of these proteins have been implicated in cancer and other human illnesses, failure or disruption of this cellular mechanism may promote the disease process, according to Dr. Yue Xiong, assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC-CH School of Medicine.

"Balance is the key word. How the cell cycle of growth and division maintains balance is what we're studying," Xiong says. "It may be that human diseases are somehow linked to a degradation breakdown, one that leads to imbalance of proteins."

Xiong, a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, points to the known tumor suppressor p53 as an example. Normally, p53 is present within cells in relatively minute amounts. "If it's degraded too much, the protein never accumulates and you get tumor development. If this protein accumulates too much, the cell won't grow," he explains.

Another example is the cancer-related myc (pronounced MIK) oncogene and the protein it transcribes. "If this protein accumulates too much, you get cancer because this is the gene driving cells to grow, grow and grow."

A third example is proto-oncogene, cyclin D, which was discovered several years ago by Xiong and his colleagues at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York Cyclin D, together with its partner, CDK4, controls a critical cellular decision: to divide and grow or to arrest. Cyclin D has been found in a high percentage of human head and neck cancers and breast cancers. "When over-expressed in mouse mammary glands, cyclin D causes breast cancer," Xiong says.

The UNC-CH discovery is the first to clarify a key component of the cellular degradation process or pathway - specifically, the mechanism by which

Contact: Lynn Wooten
University of North Carolina School of Medicine

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