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Aust scientists identify core enzyme inside 85% of cancers

24 May, 2007

Research into cancer, anticancer treatments, and ageing has been advanced through the identification of the composition of human telomerase - an enzyme integral to 85% of all cancers.

Cancer researchers around the world have studied telomerase since its discovery 18 years ago but they were working somewhat in the dark. The actual protein composition was unknown, scientists believing it contains up to 32 proteins. A study, headed by Dr Scott Cohen of the Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) reveals that telomerase contains just 2 proteins.

"Until now, researchers studying telomerase have not been sure what they’re working with," said Dr Cohen, whose study was supported by The Cancer Council NSW and the National Health and Medical Research Council Australia, and published by leading journal Science.

Dr Roger Reddel, acting director of CMRI and an international cancer research expert, believes the identification "switches on a light" for basic cell biology and cancer research.

"Telomerase is the target of an extensive global effort to develop anti-cancer treatments. This discovery sharpens the focus of these efforts and no doubt will speed up the process of delivering successful treatment," said Dr Reddel.

Dr Cohen developed a brilliant new purification technique that made the telomerase identification possible.

"No-one has previously been able to purify telomerase because, within each cell, it’s a very rare enzyme. Each cell has about 20 molecules of telomerase – compared to about 20 million molecules each of some abundant enzymes," said Dr Cohen. "I had to pull out one part in 100 million, which is roughly a teacup of water from an Olympic swimming pool."

These findings will significantly enhance the ability of cancer researchers to further study telomerase.

Dr Cohen’s identification of the composition also makes research methods such as x-ray crystallography possible for telomerase, which would be another major step towards identifying new anti-cancer drugs.

CMRI researches genes vital for children’s health and development, and the causes of genetic childhood diseases such as muscular dystrophy, epilepsy and leukaemia. CMRI’s results help develop better treatments, cures and preventions for childhood diseases. See the Children's Medical Research Institute website. This Sydney-based, not-for-profit organisation is funded by competitive grants and Jeans for Genes Day.