A team of researchers from Geneva University has made a breakthrough in our understanding of genes that may one day help in the fight against cancer.
The scientists, led by Professor Ulrich Laemmli, found that it is possible to alter and influence the behaviour of genes by using synthetic molecules, which attach themselves directly to the DNA sequences from which genes are made.
The results of the four-year study are published in two articles in the latest edition of the science journal, "Molecular Cell". They show how the Geneva scientists managed to bind molecules to much larger DNA sequences than had previously been achieved, and target these molecules more accurately.
"We have made important and exciting progress in targeting specific sequences," Laemmli told swissinfo, adding that his team had proved that molecules could not only be placed inside a cell, but also made to have a biological effect.
So far, his team has concentrated on altering repetitive DNA sequences in fruit flies, but the ultimate step will be to target and alter so-called single-copy genes. This would open the way to more effective treatments for cancer.
"I believe it's a real possibility. Maybe not tomorrow, but at some point in the future," Laemmli said.
"Most tumours are due to an over-expression of certain genes. If you could deactivate this oncogene, it could be very interesting," he added.
But Laemmli warns that finding a single-copy gene is like finding a needle in a haystack: "We must first increase the specificity of these molecules, so they can home in on the target gene, and not on other essential genes."
He points out that many of the existing cancer treatments de-bind DNA, but they employ a kind of scattergun approach and are very toxic. Laemmli's breakthrough would hopefully direct treatment only at the offending cells, and not at the entire genome.
The team has already begun work on trying to target more specific DNA sequences. Indeed, experiments on cancerous tissue are already underway in Prof Laemmli's laboratories.
In the long-term this kind of treatment might also be effective against infectious diseases. HIV, for example, has very particular DNA sequences, which could one day be targeted by synthetic molecules.
The University of Geneva has already submitted two patents and is in negotiations on licensing this technology to companies.
by Roy Probert