BATH, United Kingdom — Genes that trigger cancer could be switched off before babies are even born, a new study explains. Scientists at the University of Bath say there’s a genetic “tumor switch” that develops hours after fertilization. The discovery offers hope of a screening program, personalized vaccines, or even embryo engineering that could remove cancer entirely.
“Our work could open a new clinical chapter for the early detection of cancer,” says study co-author Professor Tony Perry in a university release.
In experiments on mice, an international team found gene activity in embryos kicks off within four hours of sperm injection. These include “oncogenes” which have the potential to cause cancer if they mutate. Scientists expect that the findings will also apply to humans.
“Many factors responsible for the dawn of gene activity in embryos have long been known to be major oncogenes,” Prof. Perry says.
It is the first time a pre-set order of events has been established in one-cell embryos in any species.
“Quite possibly, carcinogenesis recapitulates embryogenesis.”
Could this lead to ‘superhuman’ children?
The study combined a state-of-the-art method to inject sperm into eggs with the latest techniques in messenger RNA (mRNA) sequencing. These are chemicals that carry genetic code from DNA to a cell’s protein-making machinery.
Some experts say mRNA vaccines will one day lead to “superhuman” health. They have already played a key role in fighting COVID-19. The microscopic molecule is produced in eggs before fertilization and in embryos when the genome has been switched on.
Prof. Perry and the team were able to differentiate between the two and characterize the “on switch,” which was also associated with cancer. It is inherited from eggs. Applying inhibitors stopped embryos growing almost immediately.
The researchers specifically targeted a protein called, expressed in over 70 percent of human cancers. Blocking it turned off the switch, potentially preventing future deadly tumors. It is believed c-Myc and other cancer genes are dormant in eggs until they are themselves activated by fertilization. The work backs recent research by the same group showing gene activity in human embryos also starts at the one-cell stage.
“Many genes switched on from the get-go in mouse and human one-cell embryos are counterparts,” says study lead author Dr. Maki Asami, also from the University of Bath. “The involvement of the same oncogenic transcription factors is predicted in both species.”
It could be a game-changer in combating cancer, the causes of which remain elusive in most cases, says Prof. Perry. They also illuminate the mechanisms that regulate the start of mammalian development. Parallels between embryos and cancer could be exploited in future to close gaps in our understanding of both.
The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.