Embryonic Gene Responsible for More Aggressive Forms of Cancer

FOXC1 gene is needed to turn cells into specialized tissues such as the eyes, kidney, brain, and bone.

FOXC1 gene is needed to turn cells into specialized tissues such as the eyes, kidney, brain, and bone.

Scientists have discovered a gene that, when switched on after embryonic development, causes more aggressive cancer in one-fifth of patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The gene, called FOXC1, is needed to turn cells into specialized tissues such as the eyes, kidney, brain, and bone during embryonic development.

But the new research found that this same gene is activated in some patients with AML, a type of blood cancer that affects white blood cells and bone marrow.

When FOXC1 is switched on in blood cell tissue, it stunts the development of blood cells and stops them from maturing into normal specialized blood cells, thus triggering a more aggressive cancer.

“This is an important finding which helps us understand how acute myeloid leukemia develops and why some cases of AML are more aggressive than others,” said Dr. Tim Somervaille, lead author from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester. “Here, instead of being faulty or mutated, this normal gene is turned on in the wrong place at the wrong time which makes the cancer grow more rapidly. There are certain situations where this gene is necessary, as in the development of the eye and skeleton before birth. But when it’s switched on in the wrong tissue, it causes more aggressive forms of leukemia.”

Approximately 2900 people are diagnosed with AML each year and of these, about 580 will have had the FOXC1 gene wrongly switched on in their cancer.

“It’s essential that we continue to research basic biology to further understand how cells become cancerous,” said Nell Barrie, senior science communication manager at Cancer Research UK. “In this study, identifying a specific gene behind more aggressive forms of acute myeloid leukemia could give clues for new ways to personalize treatments for select patients. The better we understand the nuts and bolts of each cancer, the sooner we can find new ways to stop it.”