Scientists have discovered a new cancer-causing gene that they believe could be a molecular master switch for the disease.
Dubbed the Pokemon gene, it is one of several so-called oncogenes that lead normal cells to become cancerous. But it could be one of the most important.
“Pokemon is a main switch in the molecular network that leads toward cancer,” said Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York who headed the team that identified the gene.
“If we could turn Pokemon off, it may block the oncogenic circuitry and stall the malignant process.”
Although it shares its name with the popular Japanese pocket monster cartoon characters, Pandolfi said it is purely coincidental. Pokemon is short for POK Erythroid Myeloid Ontogenic factor.
Cancer develops when normal cells mutate and divide uncontrollably to form a tumour. When oncogenes do not function well, they can lead normal cells to turn cancerous.
“What is extraordinary about this gene is that it is essential for the function of the other oncogenes,” Pandolfi said in an interview.
“It is a main switch of this network of oncogenes that control (cell) transformation. None of the oncogenes so far identified play such a critical role.”
Pandolfi, Takahiro Maeda and their colleagues, who reported the research in the journal Nature, believe the protein produced by the gene could be a new target for drug therapies against cancer, which kills more than 6 million people each year.
“We have a clear idea of how to block its function,” said Pandolfi.
In animal studies, the scientists discovered that the Pokemon protein interferes with the action of other proteins, including a tumor suppressor called ARF.
When they inserted the gene into mice, the animal developed and died from an aggressive form of lymphoma. The researchers also found high levels of the Pokemon protein in human lymphomas.
But the scientists said they have preliminary data showing it is involved in other types of cancer.
They hope to develop a diagnostic tool to determine the status of the gene in human cancers and a drug to block its function.
“We know that Pokemon is aberrantly over-expressed in human cancers and that its expression levels predict biological behavior and clinical outcome,” the scientists said in the journal.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.