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acute myeloid leukemia

Creative Minds: Bacteria, Gene Swaps, and Human Cancer

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Julie Dunning Hotopp

Julie Dunning Hotopp

When Julie Dunning Hotopp was a post-doctoral fellow in the early 2000s, bacteria were known for swapping bits of their DNA with other bacteria, a strategy known as lateral gene transfer. But the offloading of genes from bacteria into multicellular organisms was thought to be rare, with limited evidence that a bacterial genus called Wolbachia, which invades the cells of other organisms and takes up permanent residence, had passed off some of its DNA onto a species of beetle and a parasitic worm. Dunning Hotopp wondered whether lateral gene transfer might be a more common phenomenon than the evidence showed.

She and her colleagues soon discovered that Wolbachia had engaged in widespread lateral gene transfer with eight species of insects and nematode worms, possibly passing on genes and traits to their invertebrate hosts [1]. This important discovery put Dunning Hotopp on a research trail that now has taken a sharp turn toward human cancer and earned her a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award. This NIH award supports exceptionally innovative research projects that are inherently risky and untested but have the potential to change fundamental research paradigms in areas such as cancer and throughout the biomedical sciences.

Different Cancers Can Share Genetic Signatures

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Cancer types floating over a cell with unraveling DNA

NIH-funded researchers analyzed the DNA of these cancers.

Cancer is a disease of the genome. It arises when genes involved in promoting or suppressing cell growth sustain mutations that disturb the normal stop and go signals.  There are more than 100 different types of cancer, most of which derive their names and current treatment based on their tissue of origin—breast, colon, or brain, for example. But because of advances in DNA sequencing and analysis, that soon may be about to change.

Using data generated through The Cancer Genome Atlas, NIH-funded researchers recently compared the genomic fingerprints of tumor samples from nearly 3,300 patients with 12 types of cancer: acute myeloid leukemia, bladder, brain (glioblastoma multiforme), breast, colon, endometrial, head and neck, kidney, lung (adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), ovarian, and rectal. Confirming but greatly extending what smaller studies have shown, the researchers discovered that even when cancers originate from vastly different tissues, they can show similar features at the DNA level