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"Junk DNA" drives cancer growth

"Junk DNA" drives cancer growth

Major international research collaboration finds link between faulty DNA and the growth of cancers.

Researchers from the University of Leeds, UK, the Charité University Medical School and the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin, Germany, have discovered a new driving force behind cancer growth.

Their studies have identified how 'junk' DNA promotes the growth of cancer cells in patients with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Professor Constanze Bonifer (University of Leeds) and Dr Stephan Mathas (Charité, MDC) who co-led the study suspect that these pieces of 'junk' DNA, called 'long terminal repeats', can play a role in other forms of cancer as well. The work is published in Nature Medicine.

The researchers uncovered the process by which this 'junk DNA' is made active, promoting cancer growth.

"We have shown this is the case in Hodgkin's lymphoma, but the exact same mechanism could be involved in the development of other forms of blood cancer," said Prof. Bonifer. "This would have implications for diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy of these diseases."

'Long terminal repeats' (LTRs) are a form of 'junk DNA' - genetic material that has accumulated in the human genome over millions of years. Although LTRs originate from viruses and are potentially harmful, they are usually made inactive when embryos are developing in the womb.

If this process of inactivation doesn't work, then the LTRs could activate cancer genes, a possibility that was suggested in previous animal studies. This latest research has now demonstrated for the first time that these 'rogue' active LTRs can drive the growth of cancer in humans.

The work focused on cancerous cells of Hodgkin's lymphoma (the Hodgkin-/Reed Sternberg cells) that originate from white blood cells (antibody-producing B cells). Unusually, this type of lymphoma cell does not contain a so-called 'growth factor receptor' that normally controls the growth of other B-cells.

They found that the lymphoma cells' growth was dependent on a receptor that normally regulates the growth of other immune cells, but it is not usually found in B-cells. However in this case, the Hodgkin-/Reed Sternberg cells 'hijacked' this receptor for their own purposes by activating some of the 'junk DNA'. In fact the lymphoma cells activated hundreds, if not thousands, of LTRs all over the genome, not just one.

Hodgkin-/Reed Sternberg cells may not be the only cells that use this method to subvert normal controls of cell growth. The researchers found evidence of the same LTRs activating the same growth receptor in anaplastic large cell lymphoma, another blood cancer.

The consequences of such widespread LTR activation are currently still unclear, according to the study's authors. Such processes could potentially activate other genes involved in tumour development. It could also affect the stability of chromosomes of lymphoma cells, a factor that may explain why Hodgkin-/Reed Sternberg cells gain many chromosomal abnormalities over time and become more and more malignant.

Further information from:

University of Leeds press office: Tel 44 (0)113 343 4031, email

Professor Constanze Bonifer, University of Leeds: Tel: 44 (0) 113 343 8525l, Fax: 44 (0)113 343 8502, email

Dr. Stephan Mathas, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and Charité University Medical School: Tel.: 49 30 940 63519, Fax: 49 30 940 63124, email:

Notes to editors:

  1. There are about 1,300 new cases of Hodgkin's lymphoma each year in the UK, including 150 in children.
  2. LTR fragments were originally formed by infection with retroviruses, a type of virus that can integrate their own genetic material into a host gene. The human genome contains thousands of these LTR fragments.
  3. The receptor that was observed to control cell growth in Hodgkin-/Reed Sternberg cells is known as CSF1R (the colony stimulating factor 1 receptor).
  4. One of the UK's largest medical and bioscience research bases, the University of Leeds is an acknowledged world leader in bioengineering, cancer, cardiovascular, epidemiology, genetic, musculoskeletal and psychiatric research. Treatments developed in Leeds are transforming the lives of people worldwide with conditions such as diabetes, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The University is one of the UK's leading research institutions with a vision of securing a place among the top 50 by 2015.
  5. his work was supported in part by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SFB/TRR54), the Wilhelm Sander-Stiftung, the Deutsche Krebshilfe, the KinderKrebsInitiative Buchholz/Holm-Seppensen, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, Cancer Research UK and Yorkshire Cancer Research.

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