Gene found in worms could play a role in human cancer

29 Mar 2012 22:01:00.000

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Scientists at The University of Nottingham have identified a gene, in a simple water-dwelling worm, that might play an important role in the development of cancer.

The researchers, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), found that removing the SMG-1 gene in planarian worms caused their normal cell division to go out of control, leading to lethal growths that display many of the hallmarks of human tumours.

The study, led by Dr Aziz Aboobaker, in the School of Biology, suggests that SMG-1 may act as a ‘brake’ on animal growth which, if confirmed in humans, could be exploited to develop new treatments for cancer and other conditions related to ageing. It also suggests that these simple worms could be used as a widely accessible new animal model for studying human disease. The research was funded by the MRC and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and is published in the journal PloS Genetic.

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Dr Aboobaker said: “There is growing evidence to suggest that some of the same genes regulate wound healing and regeneration, ageing and cancer. Planarian worms provide an excellent model to study all of these conditions as they seem to bypass the normal ageing process and have an incredible ability to regenerate any part of their body — even their head — from stem cells that are always dividing, but under strict control. 

“Now we’ve discovered that the SMG-1 gene and the mTOR signalling pathway, a well-known regulator of animal growth, act in harmony to exert tight control over growth and regeneration in planarians. Crucially, if this control is removed we see hyperactive cell division and the formation of tumours, which eventually kill the worms. This suggests that SMG-1 is a potential tumour suppressor gene we were previously unaware of.”

The researchers believe that SMG-1 acts by suppressing the mTOR signalling pathway, which is known to drive the development of many human cancers as well as other conditions related to ageing. If this is the case, they would expect to see mutations of the human SMG-1 gene in cancer patients.

There is already some evidence to suggest that mutated versions of SMG-1 are present in some breast cancer cells. Further research is now needed to investigate whether these mutations themselves result in the abnormal cell growth that contributes to the development of cancers.

Paul Colville-Nash, MRC programme manager for stem cell research, developmental biology and regenerative medicine, said:

“This study is a great example of how research on a simple worm can provide powerful new insights that inform future research into human health and disease. Eventually this could form the basis of new therapies for diseases such as cancer.”

Planarians are free-living non parasitic flatworms distributed widely in nature. They have some remarkable properties — they regenerate indefinitely by growing new muscles, skin, guts and even entire brains again and again — which have led them to be dubbed “immortal” by scientists.


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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has 40,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘the world’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking 2011.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fund-raising campaign, will deliver the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news

The Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445m, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Aziz Aboobaker, at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 823 0378,; or Hannah Isom, Senior Press Officer at the Medical Research Council, on +44 (0)207 395 2345,;
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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