The gene, known as TCF21, is silenced in tumor cells through a chemical change known as DNA methylation, a process that is potentially reversible.
The findings might therefore lead to new strategies for the treatment and early detection of lung cancer, a disease that killed an estimated 163,510 Americans in 2005. The study could also lead to a better understanding of the molecular changes that occur in tumor cells during lung-cancer progression.
Tumor-suppressor genes are genes that normally prevent cells from growing out of control. The loss or silencing of one or more tumor-suppressor genes is believed to be an important part of cancer development.
The study, by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, was published online in the Jan. 13 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The newly discovered gene is unusual because it can alter normal epithelial cells, causing them to change to a more primitive state. Epithelial cells form the skin and line the body's passageways and hollow organs. They are also the source of the most common forms of cancer.
The more primitive cell type, known as a mesenchymal cell, is more commonly found in embryos and is capable of migrating to other tissues. This suggests that the silencing of the TCF21 gene might help a tumor to spread to other areas of the body, a process known as metastasis.
The gene is also often silenced or lost in a variety of other cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer, melanoma and lymphoma.