Ziv Bar-Joseph, a computational biologist at the University of Carnegie Mellon, and his team have found 100 genes that have an abnormal activation pattern in cancer cells.
Unlike various other cancer studies that seek to identify "missing" genes that might cause cancer, the new study suggests that genes can contribute to cancer in less obvious ways.
"What we see is that there are many genes that are present and yet still involved in cancer because they are not activated, or expressed, in the way they normally are," said co-lead author Itamar Simon, a molecular biologist at Hebrew University Medical School in Israel.
The genes that have been found to be deregulated in cancer include certain genes like PER2 and HOXA9, which have already been associated with cancer. Most have not, including at least three genes responsible for repairing genetic mutations that occur as DNA is duplicated in the cell.
The failure of the DNA repair genes to cycle in cancer cells raises the possibility that some mutations associated with cancer may not cause cancer.
"Some of the mutations may be caused by the non-cycling genes, rather than the other way around," said Bar-Joseph, an assistant professor of computer science and machine learning in the School of Computer Science and a member of Carnegie Mellon's Lane Center for Computational Biology.
The researchers say that their study attains significance as it scientists will not have to research into thousands of genes from now on.
"These genes seem to be important, but we don't yet know which ones play key roles or might be targets for drug therapy. We have narrowed down the field of candidates. Instead of looking at thousands of genes, now we can concentrate on about 100," Simon said.
The finding has been reported in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.