The answers to isolating cancerous tumors and finding potential new treatments for a host of cancers could be in the dirt in your backyard.
University of Iowa researchers have found a gene in a soil-dwelling amoeba that functions similarly to the main tumor-fighting gene found in humans, called PTEN.
When healthy, PTEN suppresses tumor growth in humans. But the gene is prone to mutate, allowing cancerous cells to multiply and form tumors. PTEN mutations are believed to be involved in 40 percent of breast cancer cases, up to 70 percent of prostate cancer cases, and nearly half of all leukemia cases, according to a review of the literature by the UI researchers. Combined, more than 465,000 new cases of breast and prostate cancer have been documented in 2014, according to data from the American Cancer Society.
"If you look at tumors across the board—and that doesn't mean just breast cancer or prostate cancer—you find that PTEN is the most generally mutated gene. And when you mutate PTEN in mice, you cause tumors," says David Soll, biology professor and corresponding author on the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE
While it's unknown how to prevent PTEN mutations, the UI researchers became interested in finding out whether other human genes may substitute for PTEN, like a player coming off the bench when the star has been injured.
After some searching, the team found that an amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, has the gene ptenA, which mutates similarly to the human PTEN gene and causes behavioral defects in the cell. They also found a close relative of ptenA in the amoeba, which they called lpten that performs the same functions of ptenA, but to a lesser degree—a possible bench player in the amoeba's genome.
The researchers hypothesized that ramping up the presence of lpten, making it the star on the court, could overcompensate for the mutated ptenA.