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Lasers penetrate cancer’s gene secrets

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by Cancer Research UK | News

6 July 2002

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Light sabres and phaser guns may be the stuff of science fiction, but laser technology has brought an important step forward in our present-day understanding of cancer, a study reveals1.

By using miniature lasers to probe pancreatic tumours, Cancer Research UK scientists have implicated three new genes in the development of the disease.

Their discovery could be important for the treatment of pancreatic cancer, as scientists aim to develop new drugs targeted at the genes. And researchers are optimistic that using lasers will accelerate progress against a number of other cancers.

Pancreatic cancer affects nearly 7,000 people in the UK each year and has a very poor survival rate. The disease has proved difficult to study, since pancreatic tumours are a complex mix of cancer cells and non-cancerous tissue. Analysing a tumour as a whole fails to give an accurate picture of what is going on within the cancer cells.

But Prof Nick Lemoine and his colleagues at Cancer Research UK’s Molecular Oncology Unit in Hammersmith used lasers to cut out slivers of ‘pure cancer’ from the heart of each tumour.

The technique – called Laser Capture Microdissection – allowed them to analyse the cancer cells in unprecedented detail, measuring the genetic changes that occur during the development of the disease.

Prof Lemoine comments: “Our knowledge of pancreatic cancer has been held back by the lack of the technology needed to separate out the cancer cells from all the surrounding mess. But by combining laser technology with conventional techniques, we’ve been able to home in on the disease’s genetic causes much more closely than was possible before.”

Scientists are interested not only in which genes are turned on in cancer, but the level to which they are switched. Each gene is controlled by the equivalent of a volume control, and, scientists found that three genes – called ABL2, Notch4 and SOD1 – were turned up to a much higher volume in cancer cells than in their healthy counterparts. They believe these are likely to be crucial to cancer’s growth and development and could be important targets for drugs of the future.

Prof Lemoine adds: “We’re really excited by our discovery, as these genes all appear to be extremely important in the development of pancreatic cancer. We’re already in the process of finding out exactly what the genes do in cancer cells, and the next step will be to develop drugs to block their function.”

Sir Paul Nurse, Interim Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “Cancer is a highly complex disease and it often takes a fresh approach to move our understanding forward. Until now we had no idea that any of these genes were involved in the disease, so it’s an important step forward in our search for new gene-targeted treatments.”


  1. Oncogene21 (29)

Note to Editors:

Researchers performed microdissection on 30 pancreatic tumours and selected 3 of these for more detailed analysis. They confirmed their results using conventional techniques in tumour samples from 110 patients and cancer cells from a further 16.