Research into the action of a key cancer gene has serendipitously uncovered its vital role in nerve growth, Cancer Research UK scientists reveal in a paper published on Wednesday.
The gene regulates a protein called c-Jun, which is found at high levels in many different forms of cancer, including skin cancer, liver cancer and Hodgkin's lymphoma. Scientists at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute have been studying c-Jun to try and understand its function both in healthy tissue and in tumours.
Today's report describes the essential role of c-Jun in repairing damaged nerve cells. Learning more about this important protein could therefore help to develop treatments for people with spinal injuries, as well as increase our understanding of cancer.
Lead researcher Dr Axel Behrens, of the Cancer Research UK Mammalian Genetics Laboratory, says: "We're studying this gene because the c-Jun protein is present in several forms of cancer at far higher levels than in healthy tissue. This implies an important role for c-Jun in the development of cancer.
"To understand the role of c-Jun in disease, we also need to understand the normal functions of this gene. Our research was prompted by the fact that c-Jun is not only present in cancer cells, but is also produced at high levels in response to nerve cell injuries."
Damage to nerves, such as from accidents, elicits a standard response – the 'axonal response' – that culminates in the re-growth and recovery of the nerve.
The scientists examined the axonal response in mice that did not have c-Jun in their central nervous systems.
Following injury, nerve cells lacking c-Jun showed severely impaired nerve regrowth compared to normal mice, suggesting that c-Jun is a major regulator of the axonal response. These results could have far-reaching consequences for understanding nerve regeneration.
Dr Behrens adds: "This could be of real relevance to research into spine and nerve injuries, where the nerves cannot grow back. Now we know more about the role of c-Jun in repairing the central nervous system, scientists can look for ways to use this knowledge to stimulate the reconnection of injured nerves to the muscles they are supposed to control."
Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's Director of Science Information, says: "Science can be full of surprises – you never quite know what you'll discover.
"We know that studying this particular gene will eventually further our understanding of its role in cancer, which will help us to develop new therapeutic and preventative strategies.
"The neurological findings are an unexpected bonus."