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Proto-oncogenes are positive cell-cycle regulators. When mutated, proto-oncogenes can become oncogenes and cause cancer. Overexpression of the oncogene can lead to uncontrolled cell growth. This is because oncogenes can alter transcriptional activity, stability, or protein translation of another gene that directly or indirectly controls cell growth. An example of an oncogene involved in cancer is a protein called myc. Myc is a transcription factor that is aberrantly activated in Burkett’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. Overexpression of myc transforms normal B cells into cancerous cells that continue to grow uncontrollably. High B-cell numbers can result in tumors that can interfere with normal bodily function. Patients with Burkett’s lymphoma can develop tumors on their jaw or in their mouth that interfere with the ability to eat.

Cancer and epigenetic alterations

Silencing genes through epigenetic mechanisms is also very common in cancer cells. There are characteristic modifications to histone proteins and DNA that are associated with silenced genes. In cancer cells, the DNA in the promoter region of silenced genes is methylated on cytosine DNA residues in CpG islands. Histone proteins that surround that region lack the acetylation modification that is present when the genes are expressed in normal cells. This combination of DNA methylation and histone deacetylation (epigenetic modifications that lead to gene silencing) is commonly found in cancer. When these modifications occur, the gene present in that chromosomal region is silenced. Increasingly, scientists understand how epigenetic changes are altered in cancer. Because these changes are temporary and can be reversed—for example, by preventing the action of the histone deacetylase protein that removes acetyl groups, or by DNA methyl transferase enzymes that add methyl groups to cytosines in DNA—it is possible to design new drugs and new therapies to take advantage of the reversible nature of these processes. Indeed, many researchers are testing how a silenced gene can be switched back on in a cancer cell to help re-establish normal growth patterns.

Genes involved in the development of many other illnesses, ranging from allergies to inflammation to autism, are thought to be regulated by epigenetic mechanisms. As our knowledge of how genes are controlled deepens, new ways to treat diseases like cancer will emerge.

Cancer and transcriptional control

Alterations in cells that give rise to cancer can affect the transcriptional control of gene expression. Mutations that activate transcription factors, such as increased phosphorylation, can increase the binding of a transcription factor to its binding site in a promoter. This could lead to increased transcriptional activation of that gene that results in modified cell growth. Alternatively, a mutation in the DNA of a promoter or enhancer region can increase the binding ability of a transcription factor. This could also lead to the increased transcription and aberrant gene expression that is seen in cancer cells.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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