National Institutes of Health researchers have identified a striking signature in tumor DNA that occurs in five different types of cancer. They also found evidence that this methylation signature may be present in many more types of cancer. The specific signature results from a chemical modification of DNA called methylation, which can control the expression of genes like a dimmer on a light switch.
Higher amounts of DNA methylation (hypermethylation), like that found by the researchers in some tumor DNA, decreases a gene's activity. Based on this advance, the researchers hope to spur development of a blood test that can be used to diagnose a variety of cancers at early stages, when treatments can be most effective. The study appeared Feb. 5, 2016, in The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics.
"Finding a distinctive methylation-based signature is like looking for a spruce tree in a pine forest," said Laura Elnitski, Ph.D., a computational biologist in the Division of Intramural Research at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). "It's a technical challenge to identify, but we found an elevated methylation signature around the gene known as ZNF154 that is unique to tumors." Dr. Elnitski is head of the Genomic Functional Analysis Section and senior investigator in the Translational and Functional Genomics Branch at NHGRI.
"Finding the methylation signature was an incredibly arduous and valuable process," said NHGRI Scientific Director Dan Kastner, M.D., Ph.D. "These findings could be an important step in developing a test to identify early cancers through a blood test."
Dr. Elnitski added "We have laid the groundwork for developing a diagnostic test, which offers the hope of catching cancer earlier and dramatically improving the survival rate of people with many types of cancer."