p53 is a tumor suppressor gene which was identified by Professor Sir David Lane of Dundee University in 1970.
Experiments done on this gene using the mice model shows that the gene keeps cancer at bay and also alters the ageing process. Larry Donehower of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston created some mice without the gene and found that they later developed cancer. In another set he modified the gene and the mice were protected against cancer but aged exceptionally fast. This study proved that ageing and cancer are related and are the two sides of the same coin. This discovery raises two important and alarming questions. One, whether treatments for cancer could accelerate ageing in the patient and result in dementia, later? Secondly drugs used to prevent ageing in people increase their risk of cancer? Further research is needed to answer these questions.
Some of the facts that are known about the gene are that produces a 53,000 molecular weight protein when it is active. It is activated when it senses DNA damage. It prevents the cell from reproducing until the DNA is repaired, or it induces cell death. About 36,000 papers were published till date and bringing together every two years an ever-widening community of scientists working on the frontiers of cancer research to share their latest findings on this gene.
There is a rare condition, for instance, called Li-Fraumeni syndrome, where people are born with mutant p53 in all their cells. Affected individuals are extremely vulnerable to cancer, tending to develop tumors. p53 is kept under tight control by another gene called mdm2 that switches it on and off. Mdm2 is what stops p53 killing all our cells. Hence further research is needed to better understand the functioning of both mdm2 and p53 gene.