Model Organisms Help Researchers Learn About Human Cancers


Newswise — BETHESDA, MD – June 12, 2012 -- It’s hard to imagine that a zebrafish, a small tropical freshwater fish that is often found in home aquariums, could help scientists solve complicated problems about melanoma, a type of human skin cancer. But zebrafish and other small organisms—such as fruit flies, roundworms, yeast and mice —are helping research scientists uncover how human cancers—skin, colon, breast and others—begin, invade, spread and can be treated. Many of the top scientists in the model organism and human cancer fields will be meeting to discuss their research at the Genetics Society of America’s (GSA’s) Model Organisms to Human Biology (MOHB): Cancer Genetics Meeting on June 17-20, 2012 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

“Nature reuses the same building blocks to construct organisms as different as yeasts, worms, flies, fish, mice, and humans. Key aspects of most human disorders, including cancer, can be modeled in these organisms,” said Phil Hieter, PhD, (University of British Columbia), president of the GSA. “This MOHB meeting is occurring at a very exciting time when the genetic mutations that cause cancer are being discovered at an unprecedented pace. This meeting will showcase the power of the multi-organismal approach to understanding gene function relevant to disease and will stimulate cross-talk and collaboration between cancer researchers and basic scientists,” Dr. Hieter added.

Model organisms are used to study complex diseases like cancer because of their short life cycles and well-understood biology, which enable researchers to dissect the disease, conduct experiments, and even try out treatments in ways that wouldn’t be possible in people.

“We study model organisms to improve the health of people,” said Judith Greenberg, PhD, Acting Director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. “They enable us to identify the root causes of disease, track disease progression, and test out potential therapies. These days, as scientists sort through the ever increasing wealth of genomic data, model organisms are more important than ever to help us understand the molecular underpinnings of cancer and other complex diseases.” Several model organisms are featured in talks at the GSA MOHB: Cancer Genetics Meeting, suggesting the broad application of different experimental systems to explore human disease. In addition to the zebrafish mentioned above, other model organisms featured include: • The tiny worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, which exhibits single cell movements that mimic the migration of a tumor cell in humans.• Fruit flies with the same set of sequential mutations that causes cancer in human colons.• Mice with isolated tumor cells in which chromosomes are lost and gained, and cancer-regulating genes turned on and off in addition to epigenetic or “outside the genome” influences that start and propel a cancer.• Yeast with telomeres—chromosome tips—that fail to whittle down in cancer cells and consequently enable the cells to ignore the clocks that normally regulate cell division.

Collectively, model organisms provide a unique window to the mechanistic heart of cancer: the loss of normal cell division controls, failed response to DNA damage, telomeres which are too long, and profound genomic instability. Some model organisms have their own version of human cancer cell mutations naturally, while others are modified to bear human genes. In addition, by using model organisms to study cancer, researchers are able to deftly separate genetic causes from environmental ones within a short timeframe since the life cycle of these organisms is considerably shorter than those of humans.

In addition to the informative talks like the ones mentioned above, GSA’s MOHB: Cancer Genetics Meeting features keynote addresses from Bert Vogelstein, MD (Johns Hopkins University) on cancer genomes and their implications for basic and applied research; Eric S. Lander, PhD (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology) on the secrets of the human genome, and Angelika Amon, PhD (MIT) , on the consequences of aneuploidy, which is a different number of chromosomes than the normal set.

The meeting, which runs from Sunday, June 17 to Wednesday, June 20, 2012, is intended to bring together basic scientists conducting research using model organisms with those engaged in human cancer research more directly. Registration is available online until June 12 and onsite during the meeting. For more information, see the website at http://www.mohb.org/2012/. Media interested in covering the meeting should contact Phyllis Edelman, pedelman@genetics-gsa.org. ABOUT THE MODEL ORGANISM TO HUMAN BIOLOGY MEETING: The GSA MOHB Meeting has been held every other year since 2006. The GSA Board of Directors developed this meeting to enable basic research scientists studying genetic diseases in model organisms and scientists studying these diseases in humans to have a forum for discussion of their findings and to forge collaborative investigations.

ABOUT GSA: Founded in 1931, the Genetics Society of America (GSA) is the professional membership organization for scientific researchers, educators, bioengineers, bioinformaticians and others interested in the field of genetics. Its nearly 5,000 members work to advance knowledge in the basic mechanisms of inheritance, from the molecular to the population level. The GSA is dedicated to promoting research in genetics and to facilitating communication among geneticists worldwide through its conferences, including the biennial conference on Model Organisms to Human Biology, an interdisciplinary meeting on current and cutting edge topics in genetics research, as well as annual and biennial meetings that focus on the genetics of particular organisms, including C. elegans, Drosophila, fungi, mice, yeast, and zebrafish. GSA publishes GENETICS, a leading journal in the field and an online, open-access j, G3: Genes|Genomes|Genetics. For more information about GSA, please visit www.genetics-gsa.org. Also follow GSA on Facebook at facebook.com/GeneticsGSA and on Twitter @GeneticsGSA.


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