Scientists have discovered a gene in lung cancer patients that appears to predict how long they survive. Researchers say the new gene appears to control whether a lung cancer spreads and if so, how rapidly.
The study involves an obscure gene called HLJ1. According to the researchers, HLJ1 is part of a cell's defense mechanism to weather outside stress.
In tissue samples taken from 71 patients with non-small-cell carcinoma, the most common form of lung cancer, investigators found that those whose tumors showed the highest levels of HLJ1 lived much longer than patients with low levels or none.
The findings by P.C. Yang of the National Taiwan University and colleagues are preliminary. But they are considered important enough to be published early in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Adriana Albini is deputy chief of the National Cancer Institute in Genova, Italy, and the author of a commentary in the journal.
Albini says HLJ1 is unique in that it can switch off cancer and improve survival in lung cancer patients who are lucky enough to have an active copy of the gene.
"I love the paper because there seems to be a difference of survival of 70 percent in the patients that have the gene, this HJL1 expressed," said Adriana Albini. "So, this is a very large difference. Although the authors say the numbers are still small."
Without chemotherapy or any other form treatment, Albini says it appears the average survival time of those with active copies of HLJ1 is four years from diagnosis compared to barely two years for patients without a fully-functioning protein.
Study author Yang says the gene holds promise as a diagnostic tool for people with lung cancer.
"If we can identify molecule that can regulate or counter expression of HLJ1, then we may have a chance to suppress cancer cell proliferation, also cancer metastasis," said P.C. Yang.
Researchers have identified a number of genes that become mutated and lead to cancer, p53 being one of the best known. But Italian researcher Albini says p53 is implicated in the evolution in many cancers, not just lung cancer, and it is involved in cancer cell suppression.
Albini says the difference is HLJ1 is specific to lung cancer and seems to regulate whether the disease spreads throughout the body.
"Not only just looking at the cancer cell, but in this case investigating invasion, metastasis [cancer spread] and angiogenisis [blood vessel growth to feed tumors]," she said. "Also, how the cells move around. So, I think we're going towards a new era. We're considering cancer a disease of the whole body that we can improve by looking at various aspects."
Part of the work by Yang and colleagues now is looking at ways to stimulate HLJ1 to suppress tumor growth, which they reportedly have done with some success.