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  • 21 January 2013, 15:05

New DNA Discovery Boosts Fight Against Cancer

Scientists say they have discovered four-stranded "quadruple helix" DNA in human cells which could be a key to fighting cancer.

DNA, which carries the human genetic code, is more commonly known to consist of two strands - a double helix - wrapped around each other.

But new research by scientists at Cambridge University has led to the discovery of structures intertwining four rather than two strands of DNA.

Previous studies had shown "quadruplexes" could be created in a laboratory under artificial conditions.

Now, for the first time, scientists have confirmed that they occur naturally in human cells.

And the discovery could be used to develop new treatments for cancer, according to the scientists.

The unusual molecules appear to play an important role in cell division.

They are most common in rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.

Targeting them could provide a way to halt the runaway cell proliferation at the root of cancer.

Professor Shankar Balasubramanian, from the university's chemistry department, whose group carried out the research, said: "We are seeing links between trapping the quadruplexes with molecules and the ability to stop cells dividing, which is hugely exciting.

"The research indicates that quadruplexes are more likely to occur in genes of cells that are rapidly dividing, such as cancer cells. For us, it strongly supports a new paradigm to be investigated - using these four-stranded structures as targets for personalised treatments in the future."

The discovery, details of which have been published in the journal Nature Chemistry, comes almost 60 years after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA - "the molecule of life".

Prof Balasubramanian added: "Many current cancer treatments attack DNA, but it's not clear what the rules are. We don't even know where in the genome some of them react - it can be a scatter-gun approach.

"The possibility that particular cancer cells harbouring genes with these motifs can now be targeted, and appear to be more vulnerable to interference than normal cells, is a thrilling prospect.

"The quadruple helix DNA structure may well be the key to new ways of selectively inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells. The confirmation of its existence in human cells is a real landmark."

Dr Julie Sharp, from the charity Cancer Research UK which funded the study, said: "This research further highlights the potential for exploiting these unusual DNA structures to beat cancer - the next part of this pipeline is to figure out how to target them in tumour cells.

"Work like this shows us that the story of DNA continues to twist and turn."

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