Science in Practice Articles

Chromosome tails: the key driving force in cancer cell growth? – Sophie Hill

Dr Duncan Baird at Cardiff University working with Cancer Research UK has made an important discovery in what cellular event triggers development of leukaemia.

Cancer develops when mutations in DNA allow uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. This research focuses on leukaemia – a cancer of the blood – where it is loss of DNA from cells that is responsible for cancer cell growth. New research by Dr Baird and his team reveals the mechanism behind this and could promise doctors a simple blood test to distinguish aggressive forms of leukaemia.

The research studied tiny DNA tails on chromosomes called telomeres. These structures get shorter every time a cell divides, acting like an internal clock and determining cell lifespan. When they become very short, a healthy cell senses this and stops dividing. The group found that in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) telomeres erode beyond where the cell would normally stop dividing, allowing cancer cells to proliferate indefinitely. The research also found that short telomeres lose another protective function and stick to other chromosomes, ripping them apart when cells divide. This loss of DNA could drive tumour progression.

It is the first time this has been demonstrated in humans and could be used to differentiate aggressive cancers allowing prompt treatment.

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