Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a group of proteins that are mutated in about one-fifth of all human cancers. This finding suggests that the proteins, which are members of a protein complex that affects how DNA is packaged in cells, normally work to suppress the development of tumors in many types of tissues. The broad reach of the effect of mutations in the complex, called BAF, rivals that of another well-known tumor suppressor called p53. It also furthers a growing notion that these so-called chromatin-regulatory complexes may function as much more than mere cellular housekeepers. "Although we knew that this complex was likely to play a role in preventing cancer, we didn't realize how extensive it would be," said postdoctoral scholar Cigall Kadoch, Ph.D. "It's often been thought that these complexes play supportive, maintenance-like roles in the cell. But this is really changing now." Dr. Kadoch shares lead authorship of the study with postdoctoral scholar Diana Hargreaves, Ph.D. Gerald Crabtree, M.D., professor of developmental biology and of pathology, is the senior author of the study, which was published online on May 5, 2013 in Nature Genetics. Chromatin-regulatory complexes work to keep DNA tightly condensed, while also granting temporary access to certain portions for replication or to allow the expression of genes necessary for the growth or function of the cell. Members of Dr. Crabtree's laboratory have been interested in BAF complexes and their function for many years. Recently, they reported in the journal Nature that switching subunits within these complexes can convert human fibroblasts to neurons, which points to their instructive role in development and, possibly, cancer.
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