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Research points to potential chink in cancer’s armour

Posted on 6 October 2009

Scientists at the University of York have identified and successfully silenced a gene that appears essential to cancer cell survival.

Professor Jo Milner and Dr Shafiq Ahmed, from the YCR P53 Research Unit in the Department of Biology, used a process called RNA interference to target the JNK2 gene in both cancer and healthy cells. The cancer cells died but the healthy cells were unaffected.

Our results indicate that one day it may be possible to treat cancer without the harmful side-effects so often associated with today’s treatments

Dr Shafiq Ahmed

This discovery suggests that the survival of cancer cells depends upon certain genes which healthy cells can survive without, an important step towards the development of the next generation of cancer treatments.

Dr Ahmed said: “Our results indicate that one day it may be possible to treat cancer without the harmful side-effects so often associated with today’s treatments. Our study has identified a cancer-specific target which could be selectively inhibited using small-molecules, or other means, without the use of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

This laboratory-based work is still at a very early stage and the next step is to test a larger range of different cancer cell types and also to test normal healthy cells from different tissues.

The research, which examined colorectal cancer and breast cancer cell lines among others, was funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and is published in the journal PLoS One.

A major aim of Professor Milner’s research team is to identify cancer-specific survival genes and to ask if such genes offer a new route for cancer treatment. This field of research has been made possible through the development of RNA interference which allows the silencing of a single gene amongst thousands of genes.

Professor Milner said: “Our approach is now revealing unexpected properties for certain genes including JNK2. We have also studied JNK2’s close relative, JNK1, and found that these two genes seem to oppose each other. JNK1 and JNK2 resemble the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ for cancer cell survival.”

“A further surprise is that the mechanism by which these two genes function under normal every-day conditions appears distinct from the mechanism which is activated by current anti-cancer therapies.”

Dr Kathryn Scott, from Yorkshire Cancer Research, said: “The work of Professor Milner and Dr Ahmed represents another example of the world-class research that Yorkshire Cancer Research funds throughout the region.”


Notes to editors:

  • The research Basal cancer cell survival involves JNK2 suppression of a novel JNK1/c-Jun/Bcl-3 apoptotic network can be found in full at:
  • Yorkshire Cancer Research is an independent, regional charity, based and operating in Yorkshire since 1925. In 2008-09 it funded research to the tune of almost £4million in centres of excellence throughout the region including Hull, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and York Universities. The scientists and clinicians, funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research are among the world leaders in the fight against cancer and the charity has committed a further £11million over the next five years to continue funding research teams across Yorkshire in their goal to find the causes and cures for cancer.

    The charity relies almost entirely on donations and in 2008-09 its income was £6 million. For more information visit: or contact Garry Cochrane, Communications Officer tel: 01423 877 235 email: Charity registration number. 516898.
  • The University of York’s Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, it was ranked equal first among broad spectrum bioscience departments in the UK for quality that was judged to be world-leading. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology. Its biomedical research includes an Immunology and Infection Unit (jointly with the Hull York Medical School), work on infertility and three research professors funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and York Against Cancer.

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