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PROVO — A team of Brigham Young University researchers has identified a gene that could predict a cancer patient's chance of survival.
BYU biology professor David Bearss and co-author of the BYU-University of Iowa study found that a handful of genes in a tumor can predict how the cancer will progress and how patients will respond to therapy throughout the cancer's progression.
Bearss and his colleagues, including a team of BYU undergraduate students, studied 19 multiple myeloma cancer patients by taking biopsied cell samples throughout their cancer treatment and looking at them on the genetic level.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer that transforms white blood cells in bone marrow and destroys its function. About 20,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year, resulting in about 11,000 deaths, Bearss said.
"We're still not very good at treating it, is the bottom line," he said.
Bearss set out to understand what happens to the cancerous cells at a genetic level throughout treatment. He found that a set of genes — or markers — consistently and dramatically changed as patients became resistant to therapy. Moreover, they found that one gene called NEK2, is a predictor of poor therapy response in multiple myeloma patients.
That, Bearss said, is a big breakthrough for patients and doctors faced with treatment decisions.
"(This) might change how we treat patients that have those markers. We might be a little bit more aggressive early-on because we know that their outcome might not be as good as other patients who don't have those markers," Bearss said.
In addition to outcome prediction and treatment strategy information, the discovery of NEK2 could change the treatment drugs. The gene, Bearss said, "might serve as an interesting drug target."
Researchers hope to use this discovery in developing a drug that kills cancer cells without harming healthy ones.
"We've been able to find some compounds that can inhibit the activity of NEK2 and we show that cancers that have high NEK2 expression actually respond to that drug in our laboratory," Bearss said. "We're excited to see if we can move that forward and take that into the clinic."
Bearss also found that the effects of the gene set apply to breast cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer, in addition to other tumor types they studied. He said there appears to be a common mechanism that cancer cells use to resist drugs.
"What we're really interested in today is to figure how to more personalize medicine," Bearss said. "Make it so when you walk in the door, we're not just treating you out of a book, but we try to look at your specific tumor and say, ‘What is it specifically that your cancer is expressing?'"
The study was published in the January edition of the journal Cancer Cell.
Contributing: Randall Jeppesen