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Researchers uncover cause of inflammation linked to cancer

13 March 2013

Assoc Prof Chng contributed the cell lines and patient samples in the telomerase study

Scientists in Singapore have shed light on inflammation associated with cancer in human. Telomerase, an enzyme responsible for cancer cells' ability to divide, has been found to trigger chronic inflammation, according to a study by various Singapore institutions including NUS. The exciting discovery may lead to the better control of inflammatory diseases such as cancer and diabetes, thus lowering healthcare costs.

The role of telomerase in kick-starting the inflammatory process and as a master regulator in cancer was documented in Nature Cell Biology.

Led by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the collaborative investigation also involved researchers from NUS, the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore.

Associate Professor Chng Wee Joo at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, who contributed the cell lines and patient samples for the study, explained: "Besides providing the cells with the ability to grow and not die, the telomerase also plays a central role in triggering and maintaining the signalling inside the cancer cells that orchestrate the inflammatory process which can then further fuel the cancerous process."

With the discovery, the telomerase can be targeted so as to effectively kill cancer cells and dampen the support system needed for cancer progression, he said. This means drugs can be used to reduce inflammation and eventually decrease healthcare expenses.

The scientists are currently screening for drugs that can target the telomerase and testing in human cancer samples, with the goal of identifying compounds which can be tested in clinical trials.

Meanwhile, another group of researchers are looking at the genetic basis of inflammation and cancer. The Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium - a national coalition of top clinicians and scientists in gastric cancer study comprising local and international researchers - found that inflammation through bacterial infections sparks off the development of cancer. The study reveals how genetic mutations set off bacterial infections, causing inflammation and activating a chain of processes that lead to cancer.

Professor Patrick Tan, the co-author and principal investigator of the work who is with the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme at Duke-NUS, shared that this was the first time gastric cancers were examined at the entire genome level. The group has already determined some 600 mutated genes in stomach cancer.