Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is an Epigenetic Therapy for Skin Cancer on the Way?

The news services are abuzz with the discovery of a new "master gene" for obesity. What the stories are leaving out is that this gene also regulates the growth of slow-growing skin cancers. An epigenetic therapy, a sway to "switch off" the gene, eventually may treat both obesity and some kinds of cancer.
Scientists in the UK and Iceland have announced the discovery of KLF14, a gene that seems to determine how much fat the body stores and how the liver and muscles change to accommodate the signals to store more fat. We store more fat when our muscles and liver become less sensitive to insulin, leaving more insulin in circulation for the storage of free fatty acids into fat cells. This also raises blood sugars. Increased blood sugars lead to high triglycerides, and surplus triglycerides may be transformed into cholesterol.

But that isn't all that KLF14 does.

KLF14 also protects "young" cancer cells. These are cells that have recently been created and are just activating their inner energy making machinery. These are also cells that are especially susceptible to attack by the immune system (although most drugs for cancer intervene at a different phase).

Scientists have long known that KLF14 and two other genes in the same family protect basal cell carcinoma, a slow-growing skin cancer, from the immune system. Now scientists know that the same gene is a master control switch for many other processes.

We all get one copy of the KLF14 gene from our fathers and the other from our mothers, but only the copy from our mothers is active, scientists now know.

What is the practical value of this new information? It seems likely that:

  • If your mother had issues with obesity, high cholesterol, or diabetes, then you should also be on the lookout for basal cell carcinoma.
  • If you have your own issues with obesity, high cholesterol, or diabetes, then you should limit your sun exposure to the 20 minutes or so you need for vitamin D, and then use sunscreen to prevent basal cell carcinoma.
Epigenetic cancer therapies are probably still 10 to 15 years away.


the MuTHER Consortium, Small KS, Hedman AK, Grundberg E, Nica AC, Thorleifsson G, Kong A, Thorsteindottir U, Shin SY, Richards HB; the GIANT Consortium; the MAGIC Investigators; the 
DIAGRAM Consortium, Soranzo N, Ahmadi KR, Lindgren CM, Stefansson K, Dermitzakis ET, Deloukas P, Spector TD, McCarthy MI. Identification of an imprinted master trans regulator at the KLF14 locus related to multiple metabolic phenotypes. Nat Genet. 2011 May 15. [Epub ahead of print]

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