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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 10:39 GMT
Working out what genes do
Lab work
The project will look at hundreds of genes
Scientists have launched a major international initiative to systematically uncover the function of each of our genes.

They hope it will provide vital information about how cancer disrupts the normal functioning of our cells - and lead to new drug treatments to stop this happening.

The Human Genome Project has enabled scientists to identify all the genes that make up mankind.

But the next stage is work out what each of these genes do.

This has been made possible by the discovery of a process called RNA interference which is used by the body to switch off individual genes while leaving all others unaffected.

We should be able to find out precisely what we need to take away from a cancerous cell in order to make it normal again

Dr Julian Downward
The charity Cancer Research UK and the Netherlands Cancer Institute plan to join forces to exploit this knowledge to inactivate almost 10,000 genes one at a time in order to find out precisely what they do - and how they might contribute to cancer's development.

Big advance

Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "Despite the massive advances in sequencing the DNA in the human genome, the function of most of our genes remains a mystery.

"The next big challenge for scientists is to find out exactly what they're all doing, so we can work out which of them are playing important roles in cancer and other diseases.

"Such an endeavour has never before been possible, because dissecting out the function of a single gene from around 35,000 is extremely difficult.

"But thanks to the incredible discovery of RNA interference, we think we should now be able to crack the problem."

RNA interference was first discovered in the obscure nematode worm.

RNA plays a crucial role in de-coding information from the genes so that it can be used to build new proteins.

But the nematode also uses tiny pieces of RNA to specifically switch off certain rogue genes that would otherwise cause it harm.

Researchers have found that synthetically produced RNA sequences can be used to target genes in human cells.

Scientists plan to use RNA interference to create cells in which all genes are fully functional bar one, and analyse how the loss of individual genes affects cell function.

Key cells

They will screen the treated cells to discover whether any have reverted to type and become normal again despite the loss of a gene.

It might be that these cells will hold the key to the development of cancer, as they will have shown themselves able to over-ride RNA interference - and thus prevent the body from protecting itself from the effect of harmful genes.

Lead researcher Dr Julian Downward said: "This project will help move forward the frontiers of medical science, from knowing the sequences of DNA that make up our genome, to knowing how these sequences work together to form a functional human being.

"Using RNA interference, we should be able to find out precisely what we need to take away from a cancerous cell in order to make it normal again - essentially we will be dismantling cancer at the level of its genes."

An initial pilot study will look at 300 genes. If, as expected, it proves successful, the project will be rolled out to cover a further 8,000 or so.

Eventually, the research may be extended to cover the entire human genome.

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18 Dec 02 | Health
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