A team led by Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, New Zealand, and Professor Jiri Neuzil from the Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, has become the first in the world to demonstrate mitochondrial DNA movement between cells in an animal tumor. Their paper was published in the January 6, 2015 issue of the biological journal Cell Metabolism. The research lays important groundwork for understanding human diseases other than cancer, because defective mitochondrial DNA is known to account for approximately 200 diseases and is implicated in many more. It could also usher in a new field where synthetic mitochondrial DNA is custom-designed to replace defective genes. In mouse models of breast cancer and melanoma that had had their mitochondrial DNA removed, replacement DNA was acquired from surrounding normal mouse tissue. After adopting this new DNA, the cancer cells went on to form tumors that spread to other parts of the body. Professor Berridge says the landmark discovery could open up whole new areas of research. “Our findings overturn the dogma that genes of higher organisms are usually constrained within cells except during reproduction. It may be that mitochondrial gene transfer between different cells is actually quite a common biological occurrence.” Although other research groups have seen mitochondrial DNA move between cells in the laboratory, the Malaghan team is the first to demonstrate the transfer in an animal tumor model. Professor Berridge says the research wouldn’t have happened without the extraordinary patience of his research colleague, An Tan. “A normal person would have terminated the experiment after a week, before this effect was observed, thinking that the tumor cells without mitochondrial DNA weren’t going to grow.
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