Gene is thought to be cancer master switch

An international team of scientists believes it has found cancer’s master switch with the discovery of a gene they dubbed “Pokemon.”

Like the electronic game figures – tiny monsters with bad tempers – the cancer-triggering gene apparently instigates the misbehavior of other cancer-causing genes, leading to tumor formation.

In Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, in collaboration with teams in Japan and Britain, announced that the gene plays a key role in starting a malignancy. As a result, scientists now believe they have stumbled upon an important new target for an anti-cancer drug.

Dr. Carlos Cardon-Cardo, a molecular pathologist at the cancer center and a senior author of the research, defined Pokemon as an oncogene, which means it is capable of causing cancer. Dozens of oncogenes have been discovered over the past 25 years. But unlike the others, Cardon-Cardo said Pokemon has a governing role: It is needed for other genes to function. Eliminate Pokemon, he said, and you stop the activity of other cancer-causing genes.

“This is the master switch that interacts with other genes,” Cardon-Cardo said. “It acts differently than other oncogenes. Others regulate cell growth, but Pokemon impacts on critical properties of cancer cells.”

Among those key properties, Pokemon enhances a cancer cell’s ability to resist aging and death. This immortalizing factor essentially endows cancer cells with a Peter Panlike quality that renders them robust indefinitely, the very trait that makes tumors difficult to treat.

Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, the study’s lead investigator, said even though Pokemon shares a name with imaginary figures, whimsy was never intended. “This is very serious and the name was serendipitous, pure serendipity,” Pandolfi said. Pokemon stands for POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic factor.

In the study, scientists discerned Pokemon’s role in human lymphoma, which originates in the lymph nodes. But Cardon-Cardo added that Pokemon is far more pervasive.

“We know already that as an oncogene, Pokemon is involved in other … tumors,” and is likely active in a range of cancers: breast, prostate, bladder and lung malignancies, he said.

Pandolfi said the aim would be development of a drug that acts on the gene because it affects multiple forms of cancer.

“This is going back to a unifying theme to understand how cancer works,” Pandolfi said. “What is emerging is this idea that genes work in networks. Targeting specific sites will be important in drug development.

“Pharmaceutical companies do not like to invest in something like this when the gene is rare. This one is not.”

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