media release

Scientists strike genetic gold in lymphoma study

July 27, 2011

Lubna Ekramoddoullah, Provincial Health Services Authority, 604.675.7459,
Carol Thorbes, SFU PAMR, 778.782.3035,

Scientists at the BC Cancer Agency (BCCA), including several from Simon Fraser University, have uncovered information that could help oncologists prevent Canada’s fifth most common cancer from even gaining a foothold in people.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) affects 7,700 Canadians. In B.C. alone, more than a thousand people are expected to be diagnosed with the disease this year.

A team of 50 BCCA scientists discovered 109 genes with recurring mutations while sequencing the whole genomes of more than 100 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma tumours. They identified 26 of the repeatedly mutated genes as contributors to NHL based on their mutation patterns.

Prior to this study, no one knew that more than two-thirds of the newly identified mutated genes were linked to lymphoma.

The journal Nature has published online this massive cancer-sequencing study, which flags two of the newly discovered lymphoma-related genes as being particularly noteworthy. It highlighted MLL2 as potentially the most commonly mutated gene in NHL as it is mutated in 89 per cent of Follicular lymphoma patients.

The study suggests mutations that inactivate MLL2, which normally appears to function as a tumour suppressor gene, enables cancer cells to grow rapidly, despite the body’s regulatory mechanisms.

A second novel gene discovery, MEF2B, bears a so-called hot spot mutation pattern reminiscent of oncogenes, another class of cancer genes.

“The mutated genes discovered should enable the design of new tests to recognize subtypes of lymphoma,” explains Angela Brooks-Wilson, one of the BCCA scientists on this study. Also an associate professor of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at SFU, Brooks-Wilson adds: “The findings may help us predict how individual lymphoma tumours will react to different treatments.”

Medical oncologists hope the newly discovered treasure trove of genetic information will advance clinical and research collaboration on preventing the growth of NHL.

“This wealth of new genetic clues will help us create new drugs and identify existing ones that can inhibit these mutant genes,” says Steven Jones, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB) at SFU. “The pattern of mutations discovered may become ideal targets for existing therapies.”

Ryan Morin, a researcher at the BC Cancer Agency, is the first author of this study. Among the other three BCAA scientists involved who teach and conduct research in MBB at SFU are: Rob Holt, Martin Hirst and the study’s leader Marco Marra.

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