New research by Australian and Dutch scientists has highlighted a link between DNA damage and cancer, by identifying an underlying cause behind early onset leukemia.
Released on Friday, the study was led by scientists at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), in collaboration with colleagues at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
The study used samples from three, roughly 30-year-old patients, with an unusual early-onset form of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which normally appears in patients around the age of 70.
They found that the younger patients all lacked a DNA repair protein called MBD4 which led to them accumulating DNA damage at a higher rate than normal, as though they were aging prematurely.
"When we sequenced the patients’ genomes, we discovered they all carried changes in the same gene, called MBD4, a gene which encodes a protein that repairs methylation damage," co-lead researcher Edward Chew said.
"The loss of MBD4 in these patients explained why their cells had not repaired the damage," the doctor said.
All cancers are caused by changes to a cell’s genome and as a person ages, their DNA accumulates damage, which can cause these changes and increase the risk of developing cancer.
"The three patients who lacked MBD4 were predisposed to accumulating high rates of methylation damage – which we believe led to them developing AML as young adults," Chew said.
As this latest study has determined, methylation damage has a particularly strong link with blood cancers, such as leukemia. According to the team, an important next step is to understand precisely why blood cells are at risk from that form of DNA damage.