New Research Exposes Possible Cancer Treatment

Altering 'super-enhancers,' a powerful set of gene regulators, could mean big things for cancer treatment.


Gene regulators could be a promising new discovery in cancer treatment. Photo via Shutterstock

Scientists from the Whitehead Institute discovered important information about how cells’ identity and function are controlled, which, in turn, will help them understand what goes wrong in cancerous and diseased cells. The researchers discovered “super-enhancers,” genes regulators that keep healthy cells functioning properly. In cancer cells, however, super-enhancers are manipulated so much that they kick cancerous gene production into overdrive, leading to potentially fatal tumors.

Though there are countless factors that can “switch” cells on an off, the study, which will be published today in the journal Cell, finds that these super-enhancers are responsible for the majority of genes that actually account for substantial differences among cells. A report from the Whitehead Institute quotes the study’s author Richard Young:

“We have been marveling at the complexity of cellular control, with millions of enhancers controlling tens of thousands of genes in the vast array of cells that comprise human beings,” says Whitehead Member Richard Young. “So it was a surprise to find that only a few hundred super-enhancers control most key genes that give each cell its special properties and functions, and furthermore, that these special controls are hijacked in cancer and other diseases.”

While this discovery is important in its own right, it also could mean big things for cancer treatment. Young and his team found super-enhancers near notorious cancer-causing genes, some of which were actually producing their own super-enhancers to proliferate tumor-causing genes. And since super-enhancers are extremely sensitive and can be easily disturbed, it’s possible that researchers could develop a pharmaceutical to target the cancer-spreading super-enhancers. In the Whitehead Institute report, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute‘s James Bradner, who worked with Young in the study, says.

“It’s difficult not to be excited about the prospect of identifying super-enhancers in patient tumors and developing novel therapeutics to disrupt their control of key oncogenes,” says Bradner.

And, Young says, the discovery could help scientists better understand diseases across the board. He says:

“Looking at large genome association studies, one can find disease-related mutations occurring in super-enhancers,” Young says. “It’s possible that super-enhancers could become biomarkers that identify key disease genes and help guide the development of approaches to treatment.”