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New Discovery to Fight Cancer


Sunday 23 September 2007


British scientists, funded by leading cancer charity AICR (Association for International Cancer Research), have discovered how an enzyme present in human cells plays a crucial role in the development of leukaemia.


The study*, published online today in Nature Cell Biology, shows for the first time a way of targeting cancer by specifically blocking the activity of an enzyme PRMT1 in blood cells.


Experts believe the work by Dr Eric So and his team at The Institute of Cancer Research, in London, to be significant because it uncovers a novel link between the enzyme, code-named PRMT1, and MLL (Mixed Lineage Leukaemia)** an aggressive form of cancer that develops particularly in babies and young children.


Dr So, an AICR fellow, who collaborated with other scientists in Belfast, Hong Kong and the US, explains: “What we have shown is that this enzyme plays a crucial role in the cause of some types of leukaemia. We examined the role of the MLL gene and discovered that, when damaged, it caused cancer by working with two or three other proteins, one of which was PRMT1.


“When we reduced the amount of this enzyme in early blood cells it prevented damaged MLL from turning them into leukaemia cells. This suggests that drugs that block the PRMT1 enzyme might be an effective treatment for several types of leukaemia.”


According to AICR’s scientific adviser, Dr Mark Matfield, scientists discovered many years ago that cancer was caused by damage to certain key genes that controlled the growth and multiplication of cells.


“However, it was not merely damage to the genes that mattered, it was changes in the activity of the genes - whether they were switched off or on and modification of the genes or chemical modification of the histones - the proteins that the genes come wrapped up in. Recently, a new type of chemical modification of histones was discovered, called arginine methylation. This was shown to switch on important genes in the early development of the embryo.


“Dr So’s work is exciting and highly significant because it shows the crucial role the enzyme plays in cancer development, and opens up the possibility of developing new treatments in a previously unexplored way.”


Norman Barrett, AICR's Chief Executive says the decision to support Dr So’s work has been given in line with the charity’s policy of funding the most exciting and novel approaches to research worldwide. “We believe it is important to fund work that pushes the boundaries and Dr So and his team, at The Institute, are charged with tackling one of the greatest scientific challenges of all.”


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For more information please contact:

Nadia Ramsay

The Institute of Cancer Research press office

Tel: 020 7153 5359 or, out of hours, 07721747900

Email: [email protected]


Susan Osborne

AICR communications adviser

Tel: 07836 229208.


Notes to editors:

* ‘Protein arginine-methyltransferase-dependent oncogenesis’ has now been scheduled for Advance Online Publication (AOP) on Nature Cell Biology's website on 23 September at1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time, which is when the embargo will lift.

**US scientists identified MLL as a 'new’ form of leukaemia in December 2001. Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, in the US, used gene technology to study the make-up of a type of leukaemia called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). They found a distinct form of the disease, with its own genetic make-up, which they termed mixed-lineage leukaemia (MLL). It possesses what is termed a chromosomal translocation. In this case, that means that a piece of chromosome 11 has broken off and attached itself to another chromosome.

  • The Institute of Cancer Research is Europe’s leading cancer research centre with expert scientists working on cutting edge research. It was founded in 1909 to carry out research into the causes of cancer and to develop new strategies for its prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care. Website at:
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