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April 14, 2014   Columns Articles | Research News | Developmental biologists explore function of cancer-causing…

Developmental biologists explore function of cancer-causing gene

James Hataway

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By James Hataway | April 14, 2014
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Developmental biologists at UGA are discovering new roles for a specific gene known as Max's Giant Associated protein, or MGA. A little studied protein, MGA appears to control a number of developmental processes and also may be connected to cancer development.

The researchers detail their findings in a paper published recently in the journal Developmental Cell.

"The same genes that are involved in building a person during embryonic development can mutate and cause cancer later in life," said Scott Dougan the study's principal investigator and the Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scientist in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' cellular biology department. "No one has done a systematic study of MGA, but now that some studies connect it to cancer, there is tremendous interest."

The most common cancer associated with MGA is chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood and bone marrow disease in which the body produces too many white blood cells. Preliminary tests suggest that this cancer might develop when MGA does not successfully control the activities of another protein known as MYC, which contributes to tumor growth.

Dougan and his team of researchers used their own methods to change the levels of MGA in the embryos of zebrafish to see if they could discover any other roles for MGA.

They found that MGA also helps control expression of the Bone Morphogenetic Proteins, or BMP, which are responsible for bone development in the embryo. In adults, however, changes in BMP activity can result in tumor development, and MGA may be part of this transformation.

"Scientists are only beginning to understand the roles this MGA protein plays, but our tests show that MGA may control many more processes than first imagined," said Dougan, who also is a member of UGA's Developmental Biology Alliance. "MGA may be involved in a number of other cancers, but we need to do more research before we're sure."

In the coming months, Dougan and his research team plan to further examine the roles of MGA to determine how it is involved in tumor formation.

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