The team also showed that blocking a repair pathway causes the cell to commit suicide, a process called apoptosis; and that preventing this attempt at apoptosis keeps the damaged cell alive and able to become cancerous. Moreover, the type of cancer that develops depends on which repair pathway was originally disrupted.
These findings reflect the meticulous timing of an important aspect of embryo development and help to explain the origin of a variety of cancers from muscle tumors to brain tumors, researchers said. A report on these results appears in the online prepublication issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Specifically, the St. Jude researchers showed that the DNA repair pathway called homologous recombination (HR) works primarily during the first half of embryo development, when many cells are dividing inside the growing body. In contrast, the pathway called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) becomes an important repair mechanism midway through development, when cells begin to assume their final form and take on specific roles.
HR and NHEJ repair a type of DNA damage called a double-strand break (DSB), which cuts completely through the DNA. DNA exists as two individual strands that associate to form its double-stranded, twisted-ladder--shaped structure.
The researchers also discovered that a protein called ATM is required for apoptosis that is triggered by blocking NHEJ. However, apoptosis triggered by blocking HR does not require this protein. ATM is a critical DNA damage-signaling factor that is required to prevent a severe human neurodegenerative syndrome called a
Contact: Bonnie Kourvelas
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital