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University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center
Publish Date: 10/06/00
Media Contact: AHC Public Relations, (513) 558-4553
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Origins of Radiation-Related Cancers Probed

Cincinnati--Findings from a team of researchers led by Yuri Nikiforov, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine, provide scientists a better understanding of the genetic mechanism of cancer development following radiation exposure, as reported in the October 6 issue of Science magazine. The cancers they are studying have chromosomal rearrangements. Chromosomal rearrangements are mutations formed by breakage and abnormal fusion of two chromosomal regions. Each of us normally carries 23 chromosomes or chains of genes linked together. For decades, scientists wondered why two genes located separately in the nucleus of certain cells fuse together to form a rearrangement after radiation exposure. "In this paper we show that such rearrangements in gene segments may occur in humans because the two genes are very close in location to each other," says Nikiforov. The proximity predisposes the DNA, which has been damaged by ionizing radiation or by other gene-altering agents, to form a rearrangement.

Nikiforov came to the U.S. from Belarus, a country just north of Chernobyl that was most severely affected by radioactive fall-out after the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster in 1986. Since the early 1990s, Nikiforov and his colleagues have studied thyroid cancer in children exposed to radiation from Chernobyl. Their most recent efforts focused on investigating how radiation exposure causes chromosomal rearrangements. These rearrangements often lead to the development of various cancers such as leukemia, thyroid, and many others.

This study is an important contribution to medical science since it describes a fundamental mechanism of how chromosomes exposed to radiation will change. This knowledge may lead to a better understanding of how a broad range of cancers originate, especially those arising after radiation exposure. In the long term, this may result in the development of new therapeutic strategies aimed at protecting human cells from the development of chromosomal rearrangements and subsequent cancer after radiation exposure.

One of the referees for the prestigious Science magazine, said in his review of Nikiforov's paper, "The results are striking, interesting, and potentially quite important. It has been a long-standing puzzle that ionizing radiation acts comparatively uniformly on different parts of the genome, but some common cancer-associated chromosomal rearrangements are very specific. This paper supplies perhaps the clearest evidence to date that geometric proximity of different genes in the nucleus is part of the answer."

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