Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Cancer immature?


Research on the eyes of fruit flies reveals new truths for cancer research

February 2009

Brona McVittie reports

Sarah Palin might be rather shocked to learn that she has thousands of genes in common with the fruit fly (watch video). Yet for this very reason flies are key to understanding human diseases like cancer. For more than half a century scientists have been using Drosophila melanogaster as a tool to better understand biological development. This work has fuelled many major breakthroughs in cancer research.

A recent PLoS publication is no exception. Speculations from a group of Belgian biologists led them to uncover a genetic switch in flies that could be used to turn off cancer in humans. The scientists wondered whether genes that act as master switches - controlling the maturation of cells in a developing embryo - might be relevant to cancer. Their hunch was based on the observation that cancer cells in many respects appear to be 'immature'.

The team investigated a master gene (ato) involved in eye development in flies. The equivalent gene in humans (ATOH1) is a known tumour-suppressor. The team compared flies with a working copy of the gene to flies with a disfunctional copy. The latter group showed enhanced tumour formation. Further tests revealed that ato controls the delicate balance between dividing and culling cells during eye development.

In humans and mice the equivalent gene appears to play a similar role in development. Moreover, loss of the protein product of ATOH1 has been reported in human colon cancer cells, where its absence seems to hamper newly made cells from maturing into dedicated gut cells. Clearly the 'immaturity' of cancer cells warrants further investigation.

The silencing of tumour-suppressor genes in cancer is influenced by epigenetic factors such as DNA methylation. Drugs that effectively reverse this silencing by altering such epigenetic marks on DNA are currently being tested. Research of this nature could lead to new cancer therapies based on reactivating or restoring the function of ATOH1 and/or other master genes that play similar roles in the maturation of cells.

Mon, May 29th 2017- Wed, May 31st 2017

After last year's successful kick-off meeting, the EpiGeneSwiss meeting will take place again in Weggis, Switzerland. This year we have added one day in addition to accommodate more topics and more t...

Mon, Jun 19th 2017- Wed, Jun 21st 2017

The focus of the 2017 IMB Conference is on “Gene Regulation by the Numbers: Quantitative Approaches to Study Transcription”. The conference will explore the latest findings and technological developme...

Tue, Jul 11th 2017- Thu, Jul 13th 2017

The MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol invites all professionals interested in aetiological epidemiology and Mendelian randomization to attend our conference on the subject...

Wed, Aug 30th 2017- Fri, Sep 1st 2017

The nucleosome is the fundamental building block of chromatin organisation and genome function. The 20th anniversary of the high resolution nucleosome structure marks a milestone for bringing together...


EpiGeneSys Final
Meeting in Paris

Thur. 11 February 2016 - Sat. 13 February 2016

More than 280 scientists attended the fifth Annual Meeting of EpiGeneSys. The conference kicked off with a talk by coordinator Geneviève Almouzni, Director of the Research Center at the Institut Curie, highlighting the achievements of the network over more than five years...

Maison des océans - Paris Read more


The Non-Coding Genome ...

December 3-4 th, 2015

The last training workshop of the EpiGeneSys network

Hotel Mediterraneo - Rome, Italy Read more

Paris / TriRhena Chromatin Club

July 9th, 2015

...exciting talks and network with members of the Chromatin community!

... An EpiGeneSys TAB workshop

June 11st-12nd , 2015

... learn about current approaches to single cell epigenetics and to meet up and network with...

Montpellier, FranceRead more

Latest publications


The impact of rare and low-frequency genetic variants in common disease.

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Stable Polycomb-dependent transgenerational inheritance of chromatin states in Drosophila.

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Stable Polycomb-dependent transgenerational inheritance of chromatin states in Drosophila.

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