'Marker' molecule offers hope for liver cancer test

10 Aug 2009

Scientists have discovered a ‘marker’ molecule which could pinpoint when liver cells start to become cancerous, reveals research published in Science.

Scientists at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute Clare Hall Laboratories, investigated the behaviour of a new DNA damage repair enzyme called ALC1 (Amplified in Liver Cancer 1) which is found in excessive amounts in half of liver cancers.

In normal cells ALC1 acts as an important ‘relaxant’ which loosens tightly-packaged genetic information, called chromatin – made of DNA and ‘packing proteins’ - at the point of a DNA fault. The loosened chromatin enables exposure of the DNA damage to repair molecules, which can easily access and fix the fault.

But the scientists have discovered for the first time that when too much ALC1 is produced it excessively relaxes a cell’s genetic material, which makes the DNA more vulnerable to mistakes and increases the chances of cancer developing.

The findings suggest the molecule could be developed as a test to detect pre-cancerous changes in liver cells, which could one day help monitor those at risk.

Lead author, Dr Simon Boulton, head of the DNA damage response laboratory at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute, said: “When too much of the ALC1 molecule is produced, the genetic information inside cells unravels which makes it vulnerable to damage.

“We know that ALC1 is present in greater amounts in half of liver cancers and this research suggests it could be developed as a future test to detect pre-cancerous changes in liver cells.”

He added: “So far ALC1 is known to be produced in greater amounts in liver cancer cells – so we need to carry out more experiments to see if this also happens in other cancers.”

Around 3,000 people each year in the UK are diagnosed with primary liver cancer - cancer that starts in the liver. Unfortunately the disease is very difficult to treat successfully and fewer than six per cent of patients are still alive after five years.

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK said: “This research is particularly exciting.

“Liver cancer is difficult to treat so this makes it even more important to investigate ways to detect precancerous changes in cells in order to catch liver cancer before it has had a chance to fully develop.

“This research is a fantastic example of how science has the potential to have a direct impact on cancer diagnosis and treatment for the future.”