German Researchers Report Breakthrough on Childhood Cancer | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.01.2009
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German Researchers Report Breakthrough on Childhood Cancer

A team of German researchers have discovered a cellular gene protein which could hold a clue to future treatments of a childhood cancer called neuroblastoma.

A child cancer patient in hospital with her mother

The discovery offers hope for sick children and their families

Neuroblastoma, the most common cancer in young children, results when neural crest cells continue to divide and differentiate. Normally, neural crest cells stop dividing. But neuroblastoma lose this capacity, and they go on to spawn deadly neuroblastoma cells.

Now for the first time, researchers at Wuerzburg University in Germany have isolated the so-called AURKA gene which scientists know nurtures another gene called MYCN, which is a key culprit in the spread of neuroblastoma tumours.

"We speculated that genes that are expressed in a MYCN dependent manner might be required specifically for the growth of MYCN-amplified neuroblastomas and that MYCN-amplified neuroblastomas might depend not only on N-Myc itself, but also on upstream regulatory factors or downstream target genes," explained senior study author, Dr. Martin Eilers, from the University of Wuerzburg.

Hope for new treatments

Dr. Eilers and colleagues performed a genetic screen of nearly 200 genes that are dependent on amplified MYCN in human neuroblastoma or are direct targets of Myc.

"Our results show that stabilization of N-Myc is a critical oncogenic function of Aurora A in childhood neuroblastoma; the challenge will now be to find ways to interfere with this function in order to find new approaches for the therapy of these tumours," said Dr. Eilers. "The findings also suggest that the current views about why Aurora A is oncogenic may need to be re-evaluated."

Neuroblastoma accounts for 15 percent of childhood cancer deaths, with just a 40 percent survival rate even though it only causes about 7 percent of all pediatric cancers.

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