Featured News Cancer-causing ‘junk’ under the microscope

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Fri, 10 Dec 2021

Cancer-causing ‘junk’ under the microscope

Image: Michael Longmire

A James Cook University scientist is studying how ‘junk’ DNA helps cancers develop, and the research may lead to a new way of treating breast cancer and leukemia.

Associate Professor Ulf Schmitz said his team will use an innovative mathematical approach to investigate how genes in cancer cells are distorted.

“Every day, 37 Australian women are diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the second biggest cause of cancer death in Australian women. The third biggest cause of cancer death in all Australians is blood cancers (leukaemia), which are diagnosed 35 times each day,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said the scientists will target a process known as ‘intron retention’.

“This is a phenomenon, which allows ‘junk’ DNA to enter the cell. Intron retention has been found to facilitate cancer development and is widespread and plays a critical role across a range of cancers. Despite that, we still don’t know precisely how it works,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said the scientists believe if it can be understood more clearly it can be prevented. The Cancer Council New South Wales is supporting the research with more than $400,000 over three years.

“Intron retention is amenable to therapeutic manipulation and a better understanding of gene-regulatory cross-talk will mean improved therapies in the medium term.

“If our theories are correct, it opens an entirely new field of research and offers new opportunities for diagnosis and treatment, including the use of computer models to predict and circumvent drug side-effects,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said the findings will be immediately shared with the cancer research community.

“We’re confident the research will produce better therapies and the data generated will provide a rich resource for other researchers to study the effects of aberrant gene regulation, with the high probability of numerous downstream benefits for cancer patients.” said Dr Schmitz.


Associate Professor Ulf Schmitz
E: ulf.schmitz@jcu.edu.au