One Person's Junk is Another's Treasure

Aug 15, 2016

Remember when we thought 98 per cent of the human genome was junk DNA? That “junk” is proving a rich treasure trove for scientists like Professor Hanson He.

Professor Hanson HeProfessor Hanson He

Published online today in Nature Genetics, He’s new finding in prostate cancer adds compelling evidence to the theory that variations in “non-coding” parts of the human genome (formerly dismissed as “junk”) play an important role in the development and progression of disease.

“Cancer is very smart to take every possible way to survive and use every piece of our genome. If research only focuses on the two per cent of the genome that is the protein- coding genes, we will have limited understanding of how the cancer can survive,” says He, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at U of T Medicine and a scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network.

“We cannot achieve personalized cancer medicine without understanding the other 98 per cent of our genome.”

In prostate cancer, there are more than 100 known genetic risk regions associated with the development and progression of the disease; He’s work has found that 45 of those genes may function through non-coding RNA.

His team delved further into one of those non-coding regions, called Prostate Cancer Associated Transcript 1. They found PCAT1 functions as a kind of “glue” to attract different protein complexes together and guide them to specific genomic locations to activate their target gene expression, which then starts the disease process.

The next step is to research the action of the other 44 genes associated with non-coding RNA. From there, scientists will move close to the holy grail of personalized prostate cancer diagnostics: being able to predict who will develop cancer and whether or not the tumour will be aggressive. Learn more about He's research. 

 

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