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Process That Kills Damaged Cells Hints at New Cancer Therapies

December 4, 2017

Scientists have long known that cells originating from an animal’s anterior — the body’s upper half — tend to grow, divide and survive better than those from the posterior. Studies show this to be true in cancer as well, with anterior cancers metastasizing more aggressively. Now scientists are beginning to understand why.

In a paper published in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, professor and Health Sciences Research Institute (HSRI) affiliate Nestor Oviedo, graduate students Manish Thiruvalluvan and Paul Barghouth, and collaborators at Tel Aviv University identify a molecular mechanism that regulates regional differences in a family of flatworms known as planarians.

“Planarians are a model system that are easy to grow in lab and provide valuable information that can be applied to humans,” Oviedo said. “The mechanisms that planarians and humans use to control cells are widely conserved.”

That means if a gene or protein regulates a particular process in planarians, there’s a good chance it controls the same process in humans.

The researchers showed that Ubc9, a gene found in both planarians and humans, plays an important role in region-specific cell proliferation, cell death and the cell’s response to DNA damage.

“We turned off this gene and found that cells in the anterior part of the animal kept living while posterior cells died,” Thiruvalluvan explained. “So we dug deeper and found all kinds of interesting things.”