Scientists find genetic link between cancer and premature aging

SEATTLE - Biologists have long known that the promise of eternal youth comes with a hefty price tag, a truth borne out by the immortality of most cancer cells.

The link between aging and cancer is now clearer thanks to a new study that connects a powerful cancer-causing protein to a gene associated with Werner syndrome, a disease that causes premature aging.

Carla Grandori, M.D., Ph.D., of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and colleagues report in the July issue of Genes & Development that the cancer-promoting activity of Myc - a protein implicated in breast, prostate and many other tumors - depends in part on its ability to activate the WRN gene, whose absence leads to Werner's syndrome.

Based on their results, Grandori and co-investigators at Fred Hutchinson, the University of Washington School of Medicine and Columbia University speculate that a novel class of anti-cancer therapies might be developed based on drugs that interfere with the anti-aging properties of the WRN gene.

Werner syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that develops when the WRN gene is missing or defective. The disease causes the onset of premature aging shortly after puberty and results in the appearance of old age when patients are 30 to 40 years of age. The syndrome is thought to occur because mutations in WRN cause genetic instability, a condition in which chromosomes are dramatically rearranged. Because genetic instability is also a common feature of tumor cells, Werner patients often die prematurely of cancers.

But the cancers that result from loss of the WRN gene differ from the tumors that are triggered by Myc, which require an intact WRN gene, said Grandori, a staff scientist in Fred Hutchinson's Human Biology Division and lead author of the paper.

"No one had implicated the Werner syndrome gene as a general pro-tumor agent," she said. "Patients with Werner do develop cancers, but they are very rare cancers and tend to occur later in a patient

Contact: Kristen Woodward
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

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