Biomarkers for oral cancer discovered

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019

Biomarkers for oral cancer discovered

Researchers from the University of Otago and the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) have discovered epigenetic markers that are distinctly different in oral cancer tissues compared to the adjacent healthy tissues in patients. Their work has been published in the journal Epigenomics.

Epigenetics (non-genetic influences on gene expression) is a powerful mechanism capable of altering gene expression in cancer cells without changes to the DNA sequence, and can cause tumour progression. This study is one of the first to identify epigenetic markers in oral cancer, which is known for its high mortality rate in developing countries due to late diagnosis and poor prognosis.

Researchers recruited 16 oral cancer patients in India, who were either tobacco smokers or chewers, or of mixed habits, and took samples of both tumour and normal, adjacent tissue from them. After isolating the DNA in the samples, the researchers discovered regions with altered epigenetic profiles in tumour cells compared to normal cells.

The team looked at one epigenetic mechanism, DNA methylation, which refers to the addition of methyl groups to DNA, like bookmarks. How these bookmarks are arranged could dictate the expression of genes and the spread of abnormal cells.

“By validating in a larger cancer cohort, we have shown that a subset of these biomarkers is significantly associated with poor prognosis of patients,” said co-author Dr Aniruddha Chatterjee from the University of Otago.

Lead author Dr Roshni Roy, from the ISI, added that the group was surprised to find such distinct differences in the oral cancer tissues as compared to adjacent healthy tissue from the same patients.

“We were also surprised to see that small molecules, called microRNA, were methylated or demethylated in the tumours from smokers or chewers or mixed habitués, suggesting that therapeutic intervention might be different in patients depending on the way the tobacco was abused,” she said.

The study could help save thousands of lives by helping to identify cancer cells early, with Dr Chatterjee saying finding these biomarkers is strongly associated with patient survival.

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