Low oxygen levels in cells may be a primary cause of uncontrollable tumor growth in some cancers, according to a new University of Georgia study. The authors' findings run counter to widely accepted beliefs that genetic mutations are responsible for cancer growth. If hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in cells, is proven to be a key driver of certain types of cancer, treatment plans for curing the malignant growth could change in significant ways, said Dr. Ying Xu, Regents-Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and professor of bioinformatics and computational biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. The research team analyzed samples of messenger RNA data—also called transcriptomic data—from seven different cancer types in a publicly available database. They found that long-term lack of oxygen in cells may be a key driver of cancer growth. The study was published on April 20, 2012 in the early online edition of the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology. Previous studies have linked low oxygen levels in cells as a contributing factor in cancer development, but not as the driving force for cancer growth. High incidence rates of cancer around the world cannot be explained by chance genetic mutations alone, Dr. Xu said. He added that bioinformatics, which melds biology and computational science, has allowed researchers to see cancer in a new light. Gene-level mutations may give cancer cells a competitive edge over healthy cells, but the proposed new cancer growth model does not require the presence of common malfunctions such as a sudden proliferation of oncogenes, precursors to cancer cells. "Cancer drugs try to get to the root—at the molecular level—of a particular mutation, but the cancer often bypasses it," Dr. Xu said.
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