HONG KONG, July 20 (Reuters) - A recently-discovered gene may be responsible for the proliferation of liver cancer cells, a study in Hong Kong has found, and researchers hope this finding may offer new ideas for therapy.
In a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the researchers said the gene needed to be switched on by the male sex hormone androgen - which explains why many more men than women are afflicted by this disease.
Through analysing liver cancer tissues of patients, researchers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong found that most of them shared an extraordinarily active gene, called Cell Cycle-Related Kinase (CCRK).
“This gene is normally asleep, but we found that androgen receptors come by and nudge it awake. Once awake, the CCRK gene induces growth of liver cells,” Alfred Cheng, research associate professor at the university’s Institute of Digestive Disease, told Reuters late on Tuesday.
”Apart from triggering a growth in liver cells, it can also transform normal liver cells into tumour cells.
“CCRK was only recently discovered. We have few details about this gene and we are one of the first groups to study it.”
Cheng and colleagues introduced the gene into liver cancer cells and saw how they proliferated wildly on laboratory dishes, while liver cancer cells without the gene grew only modestly.
They replicated the experiment in animals, injecting liver cancer cells containing the CCRK gene into the right side of the bodies of mice, while liver cancer cells without the gene were injected into the left. Tumours later developed only on the right side of the rodents.
Cheng said more studies were needed to confirm the function of this gene and figure out ways to disable it.
“This CCRK gene can be an important target for liver cancer control if we can find a way to lower its expression, or block it and not allow it to perform at all. Then we can reduce the development of liver cancer,” he said.
Liver cancer is the third leading cancer killer in the world, accounting for 700,000 deaths in 2008. It is especially prevalent in East Asia, particularly China.
A direct causal agent for liver cancer is the hepatitis B virus, carried by 10 percent of the population in China. In some places in China and Japan, men are three to seven times more likely to develop liver cancer than women. (Editing by Ron Popeski)