International research leads to new cancer treatment – University of Copenhagen

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22 November 2016

International research leads to new cancer treatment


Working with scientists in Germany and Norway, Danish researchers have identified a series of important mechanisms underlying the development of cancer. This paves the way for new possible treatments for cancer patients.

New international research employed large volumes of data from several thousand cancer patients to develop a computer model to identify a way in which cancer genes are activated. The method has enabled researchers to better appreciate how to analyse and understand the way that the mechanisms underlying cancer genes operate and the factors that influence them. A great deal of research previously concentrated on mutations in the actual genes but in the new study, researchers have investigated in more depth how major structural changes in DNA can influence genes.

”Our new studies shows that several genes involved in cancer can be activated by structural changes bringing enhancers close to the gene. Enhancers are bodies in the DNA that can influence how genes are regulated. So it is the way the gene is regulated and not the gene in itself that is changed. Knowing this can be highly significant for how we treat certain forms of cancer," says Joachim Weischenfeldt, Head of Research at BRIC, University of Copenhagen.

The new studies have been done by the Weischenfeldt team that consists of researchers from the Finsen Laboratory at Copenhagen University Hospital and BRIC working together with the team headed up by Jan Korbel at EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory).

New perspectives for treatment in the near future

"Our new data means that we do not have to concentrate on developing new drugs but can in theory make use of those that we already have in a more targeted way.

Joachim Weischenfeldt, Head of Research 

In the new study, researchers investigated more than 20 different forms of cancer so as to identify whether the different types of cancer have common characteristics. And they did. What several forms of cancer revealed was that certain cancer genes could be activated by a mechanism that researchers call "enhancer hijacking”. This means that a typical powerful enhancer is brought in close proximity to a gene involved in cell growth. This triggers inappropriate activation leading to rapid cell growth. The role of the enhancer actually provides perspectives for future treatment of cancer.

”We know that nowadays there are drugs that are able to inhibit these powerful enhancers that can activate cancer genes. The next step will therefore be to investigate whether these drugs can be used for those types of cancer in which the cancer gene is activated by a powerful enhancer. Our new data means that we do not have to concentrate on developing new drugs but can in theory make use of those that we already have in a more targeted way. We will not have a new treatment instantly as this will naturally have to be clinically tested. But because we already have the drugs, this should not necessarily take so long”, says Joachim Weischenfeldt.

The figure shows how crossover between DNA regions' connects an active enhancer to a cancer gene, which is activated to produce specific proteins that boost cell growth. Figure: Joachim Weischenfeldt.

The study has just been published in the international journal Nature Genetics. This research is being partially funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF).


Research Team Leader: Joachim Weischenfeldt, T: (+45) 35 45 60 40