Scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Scripps Research Institute have uncovered the role played by the least-understood part of a first-responder molecule that rushes in to bind and repair breaks in DNA strands, a process that helps people avoid cancer.
With this final piece of the puzzle in place, scientists can better understand how the repair mechanism fends off cancer in healthy people, and conversely, how it helps cancer cells resist chemotherapy. This could enable researchers to develop more effective therapies with fewer side effects.
The team deciphered the poorly understood component using innovative x-ray imaging techniques at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, which generates intense light for scientific research. They found that it extends from the repair machinery like a flexible arm and grabs molecules that are needed to help the machine zip severed DNA strands back together.
Their work is published in the October 2, 2009 issue of the journal Cell.
“This not only reveals how life works at a fundamental level, but also promises to guide the development of cancer treatments,” says John Tainer of Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. Tainer co-led the research with Paul Russell of the Scripps Research Institute.
The first-responder machine, a protein complex called Mre11-Rad50-Nbs1 (or MRN for short), homes in on the gravest kind of breaks in which both strands of a DNA double helix are cut. It then stops the cell from dividing and launches an error-free DNA repair process called homologous recombination, which replaces defective genes. If unrepaired, double strand breaks can lead to the proliferation of cancer cells.
Unfortunately, MRN’s laser-like focus on DNA repair means that it also mends broken DNA in cancerous cells. This sometimes stymies chemotherapy treatments that kill cancer cells by inducing double strand DNA breaks.
Because of its key roles — good and bad — scientists have painstakingly studied MRN since 1995 to learn how it works in healthy people, how its mutations promote diseases such as cancer, and to possibly disable it during cancer treatment. …
“Understanding how the body responds to DNA breaks is fundamental for cancer interventions and gene therapies. These results open the door to controlling the repair of DNA breaks for cancer therapeutics and gene targeting.”