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Researchers uncover secrets of cell, DNA replication

Two papers from the Fox Chase Cancer Center explore how proteins affect DNA coding.

Over the last month, doctors at Temple’s Fox Chase Cancer Center published two papers that could impact future cancer research on a national scale.

The papers explore the structure of DNA and cell replication, which could unlock new information on how cancer cells duplicate and pass on certain traits in proteins, said Dr. Vasily Studitsky, the co-leader of cancer epigenetics at Fox Chase, who worked on both papers.

With this new understanding of how cells replicate, scientists will be able to understand why some cells become cancerous. This research puts the medical field another step closer to finding possible cures.

The second paper featured work from Dr. Han-Wen Chang, a postdoctoral associate at Fox Chase.

The first paper — published on Nature.com, a website that features articles focused on science and medicine — is about a protein that cells use when they duplicate. Studitsky led the team that discovered a new way to determine the impact of FACT, a protein used in DNA.

Studitsky said the field of epigenetics — the study of how cells read the change in genes — is a relatively new science. Genes are not just found in DNA, but also in the proteins that surround DNA. Those proteins hold a code used in cellular development, called the histone code.

The research in the second paper, “Overcoming a nucleosomal barrier to replication,” was led by Chang and published in the Nov. 11 issue of Science Advances Magazine.

“What we are studying is what happens to this code when DNA duplicates,” Chang said.

Chang set up a system in her lab to study the DNA “in vitro,” meaning that the tests were done in a petri dish and not on an actual organism. Chang used a simple strand of DNA and moved a piece of the protein to the strand. She then used an enzyme to cause the DNA duplicate.

“For a long time, people believed before this that everything for how cells developed was encoded in DNA,” Studitsky said. “What we know is that all our cells have the same genetic code, but they have different epigenetic codes.”

Studitsky said that the study is important to cancer research because the disease is basically “uncontrolled cellular replication.”

“This is a very fundamental study that will affect all types of cellular biology including that of cancer,” Chang said. “The cancer cells proliferate very quickly and each time they are duplicating, something is messed up. So the question is why all of those [cells] become cancer cells.”

“Going forward, we will try to make this process more physiological to understand more what we did here was very basic,” Chang added. “And we will look at this with more specific cancer cells.”

The study on the histone code was the culmination of five years of work for Chang and Studitsky, and it’s the first on in vitro replication since 1990. The one prior was a revolutionary paper by Bruce Alberts that Studitsky said “wrote the textbook” on in vitro replication.

“Though we specifically don’t know yet what implication this might have, history has shown that all new discoveries on this kind of level have massive implications on cancer,” Studitsky said.

Jacob Garnjost can be reached at jacob.garnjost@temple.edu.

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