The researchers report in the journal Nature that LKB1 is not only a "tumor-suppressor" gene for non-small cell lung cancer in mice, it also may be more powerful than other, better-known suppressors. The study will be published on the journal's Web site on Aug. 5 and later in a print version.
If further research shows LKB1 has a similar effect in human lung cells, it could influence the way non-small cell lung cancer is diagnosed and treated, says the study's senior author, Kwok-Kin Wong, MD, PhD, of Dana-Farber, one of three institutions, along with Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, leading the work. If tumors with LKB1 mutations are found to be especially fast-growing, for example, patients with such tumors might be candidates for more aggressive therapy.
People born with defective versions of LKB1 often develop Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, which is marked by intestinal growths and an increased risk for certain cancers. Non-inherited mutations of the gene have been found in some lung cancers. This suggested that LKB1 normally thwarts tumors from forming. Mutated versions may be unable to act as a brake on cancer.
To find out, the investigators ran a series of experiments in mice with a defective form of a gene called Kras, which drives the formation and growth of lung cancer. They tracked the development of lung cancer in animals with mutated LKB1 and compared it to the experience of animals with abnormalities in either of two well-known tumor-suppressor genes.
They found that while Kras "cooperated" with the mutated tumor-suppressor genes to produce lung cancer, it cooperated even more strongly with mutated LKB1. “The LKB1-deficient tumors grew more rapidly and spread more frequently than the others, and comprised all three types of non-small cell lung cancer -- squamous cell carcinoma, large-cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma -- rather than just one or two,” Wong says. "This suggests that LKB1 plays a role at major stages of the tumors' development: initiation, differentiation of normal lung cells into cancer cells, and metastasis."
An examination of human non-small-cell lung tissue suggests LKB1 mutations play a role there as well. Of 144 samples analyzed, 34 percent of the lung adenocarcinomas and 19 percent of the squamous cell carcinomas contained abnormal versions of the gene, researchers report.
"We were surprised at how significant a role LKB1 mutations play in non-small cell lung cancer development in mice," say Wong, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "This suggests there may be additional lung tumor-suppressor genes yet to be discovered. We’re currently examining whether these results apply to human lung cancers as well and, if so, how such information can improve treatment."
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