St. Jude Children's Research Hospital scientists have rewritten the job description of the protein TopBP1 after demonstrating that it guards early brain cells from DNA damage. Such damage might foreshadow later problems, including cancer.
Researchers showed that cells in the developing brain require TopBP1 to prevent DNA strands from breaking as the molecule is copied prior to cell division. Investigators also reported that stem cells and immature cells known as progenitor cells involved at the beginning of brain development are more sensitive to unrepaired DNA damage than progenitor cells later in the process. Although more developmentally advanced than stem cells, progenitor cells retain the ability to become one of a variety of more specialized neurons.
"Such DNA strand breaks have great potential for creating mutations that push a normal cell toward malignancy," said Peter McKinnon, Ph.D., a St. Jude Department of Genetics member and the paper's senior author. "When we selectively knocked out TopBP1 in mice, the amount of DNA damage we saw suggests that TopBP1 is likely to be a tumor suppressor. We are exploring that question now."
The work appeared in the April 22 online edition of the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience. The research builds on McKinnon's interest in DNA repair systems, including the enzymes ATM and ATR, which are associated with a devastating cancer-prone neurodegenerative disease in children called ataxia telangiectasia, and a neurodevelopmental disorder called Seckel syndrome.
TopBP1 was known to activate ATR. Previous laboratory research by other investigators also suggested that activation made TopBP1 indispensable for DNA replication and cell proliferation. This study, however, showed that was not the case. Most progenitor cells in the embryonic mouse brain kept dividing after investigators switched off the TopBP1 gene.
"We showed that rather than being fundamentally important for building the machinery of replication, TopBP1's role is to monitor DNA damage and act when DNA damage occurs during replication," McKinnon said. The results offer insight into normal brain development, DNA damage repair mechanisms and cancer biology.