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USC Norris cancer research ranks among top clinical advances

The study, first published in Cancer Cell in May, was led by Peter Jones of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. (Photo/Jon Nalick)

Research from the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center that identifies specific genes that need to be turned off in order for cancer cells to survive was named one of the top 20 major advances in cancer research this year by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The study, “DNA methylation screening identifies driver epigenetic events of cancer cell survival,” first appeared in the May 15 issue of Cancer Cell, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is one of 87 studies highlighted in Clinical Cancer Advances 2012: ASCO’s Annual Report on Progress Against Cancer, available online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The annual report, now in its eighth year, is an independent review of clinical cancer research advances that have the greatest potential to improve patients’ survival and quality of life. Compiled and edited under the guidance of 21 experts in specific fields of cancer research, the report describes, in lay language, the most significant advances of the year, offering the public a window into the achievements, trends and challenges in oncology.

The USC study, which appears in the tumor biology section of the report, was led by Peter Jones, Distinguished Professor of Urology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and holder of the H. Leslie Hoffman and Elaine S. Hoffman Chair in Cancer Research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“We want to know what makes a cancer cell a cancer cell,” said Jones, an epigenetics pioneer who discovered the mechanism behind the drug 5-azacytidine, which is now standard treatment for a preleukemia bone-marrow disorder. “This particular study was the first to track down these genes that, when silenced through DNA methylation, allow the cancer cell to avoid normal death.”

DNA methylation, or the addition of methyl groups to a gene, can change gene expression without changing the DNA sequence. This epigenetic process is potentially reversible, making the areas where it happens good targets for new treatments to be developed.

“Our findings essentially pave the way for more effective cancer medicine,” said the study’s first author, Daniel Carvalho, a USC postdoctoral fellow who now leads a lab at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center’s Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. “Our research continues to focus on understanding the epigenetic mechanisms that underlie how tumors are created in order to develop new and more efficient cancer treatments.”

Co-authors included Shikhar Sharma, Jueng Soo You, Sheng-Fang Su, Phillippa Taberlay, Theresa Kelly, Xiaojing Yang and Gangning Liang, all from the Keck School. The study was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute.

The 2012 ASCO report covers the full range of clinical research disciplines: epidemiology, prevention, screening, early detection, treatment, patient and survivor, biomarkers, tumor biology and cancer disparities. Featured research is categorized as “major” and “notable.” Major advances are considered practice-changing and must have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. They may also report on treatments that received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in the past year. Notable advances are promising clinical research results that are not immediately applicable to practice, either because a drug is not yet FDA approved or the information has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed publication.

An interactive online version of the report, with illustrations, resources and supplemental information, is now available for download on ASCO’s website.

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