Discovery of ‘dark matter’ could change cancer treatment

Scientists have discovered more about the mysterious role of epigenetics, the study of how genes change, in controlling how cancers grow.

Often called “dark matter”, it could alter the way cancer is detected and treated, according to a study by the Institute for Cancer Research.

And it could lead to new forms of testing for the disease that would help tailor treatments.

But it’s still a long way off, research is still in its infancy.

When most people think of genetics, they think of structural changes in the DNA code that are passed down from generation to generation.

As a result, the focus has been on how these genetic mutations drive the growth of cancers.

But, in recent years, scientists have discovered another less simple phenomenon, called epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of how an individual’s behavior and environment can cause changes that affect how their genes work.

Your epigenetics change with age and in response to where and how you live.

Epigenetics does not modify the DNA code, but it can control access to genes and is increasingly considered to play an important role in the development of cancer.

Professor Trevor Graham, director of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “We have unveiled an extra level of control over the behavior of cancers – something we liken to ‘dark matter’ cancer.”

He told the BBC there can be “tangles in the DNA lines” as they fold up in each cell and this can change which genes are read.

The position of tangles can be very important in determining the behavior of cancers, he added.

“It won’t change clinical care tomorrow, but could be a pathway for developing new therapies,” Professor Graham said.

Genetic testing for cancerous mutations, such as BRCA that increases breast cancer risk, for example, only offers part of the picture of a person’s cancer.

“By testing for both genetic and epigenetic changes, we could potentially predict much more accurately which treatments will work best for a particular person’s cancer,” Professor Graham said.

The results are published in two papers in Nature – the first analyzed more than 1,300 samples from 30 bowel cancers, showing that epigenetic changes were very common in cancer cells and helped them grow more than others cells.

The second article involved many samples taken from different parts of the same tumour. She discovered that the way cancer cells grow is often governed by factors other than DNA mutations.

The researchers say their findings cannot prove that epigenetic changes directly lead to alterations in the behavior of cancers, and that more work needs to be done to show this is happening.

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