Sunday, October 26, 2008

SIRT1 and cancer

In the past we've had some discussion of the histone deacetylase (HDAC) enzyme SIRT1 and other related sirtuin proteins, especially with respect to their possible relationship with longevity. (See here, for example.)

Much of the focus has been on the HDAC properties of SIRT1 that can switch off various genes. But there have also been findings of more direct relations between SIRT1 and cancer. Some indicate that sirtuins, including SIRT1, may help suppress cancer in certain circumstances, while others suggest it may actually help promote cancer. We'll have to save a general discussion of this relationship for later.

But now we have some research that shows how SIRT1 is directly involved, and has a beneficial effect, in an important pathway that's quite relevant to breast cancer.

The background is that the BRCA1 gene (short for breast-cancer-associated gene 1) is a tumor suppressor gene that, when mutated, may lose its ability to suppress tumors. Defective BRCA1 is sometimes inherited, which helps explain familial tendencies to breast cancer.

So what does BRCA1 normally do to suppress tumors? Well, apparently it maintains expression of SIRT1, which in turn inhibits the expression of another protein, called Survivin. The latter is an inhibitor of programmed cell death (apoptosis), and therefore, when it is active, helps protect cancer cells, which might otherwise be killed by the immune system, chemotherapy, or radiation.

In a nutshell: defective BRCA1 leads to insufficient SIRT1, which leads to an inadequate ability to kill cancer cells.

New Findings May Improve Treatment Of Inherited Breast Cancer (10/9//08)
About 8% of breast cancer cases are caused by mutations in tumor suppressor genes, such as breast cancer associated gene-1 (BRCA1). BRCA1 is the most frequently mutated tumor suppressor gene found in inherited breast cancers and BRCA1 mutation carriers have a 50-80% risk of developing breast cancer by age 70. "Although work with animal models of BRCA1 mutation has provided some insight into the many biological processes linked with BRCA1, very little is known about the downstream mediators of BRCA1 function in tumor suppression," says lead study author Dr. Chu-Xia Deng from the Genetics of Development and Diseases Branch at the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Deng and colleagues were interested in investigating the relationship among BRCA1, SIRT1 and Survivin. SIRT1 is a protein and histone deacetylase involved in numerous critical cell processes including metabolism, DNA repair and programmed cell death, known as apoptosis. Although SIRT1 has been implicated in tumorigenesis, no concrete role in cancer initiation or progression has been identified. Survivin is an apoptosis inhibitor that is dramatically elevated in many types of tumors. Research has suggested that Survivin may serve to maintain the tumor and promote growth.

The researchers found that BRCA1 functioned as a tumor suppressor by maintaining SIRT1 expression, which in turn inhibited Survivin expression. When BRCA1 was not functioning properly, SIRT levels decreased and Survivin levels increased, allowing BRCA1-deficient cells to overcome apoptosis and undergo malignant transformation.

This leads one to ask whether there are other ways that SIRT1 activation could be maintained when BRCA1 is defective. Fans of resveratrol will observe that this is something that resveratrol can do. And so the researchers gave it a try:
They went on to show that the compound resveratrol strongly inhibited BRCA1-mutant tumor growth in cultured cells and animal models. ... In the current paper, resveratrol enhanced SIRT1 activity, this leading to reduced Survivin expression and subsequent apoptosis of BRCA1 deficient cancer cells.

Ironically, previous research had indicated circumstances in which SIRT1 might promote growth of other types of cancers. It might, for instance, inhibit expression of other tumor-suppressor genes.

Another news account goes into this a little more:

Gene thought to promote tumor growth has opposite role in a kind of breast cancer (10/9/08)
These results were surprising in light of previous reports showing that high levels of SIRT1 enhance growth of other types of tumors. It now appears that SIRT1 can enhance or inhibit tumor growth — it all depends on the context, says Deng. ...

The researchers also found that a red wine chemical called resveratrol, recently touted as a powerful antiaging compound, was effective in combating BRCA1-associated tumor formation specifically.

How resveratrol is able to do this is unclear. “The work in this case is that SIRT1 has an antitumor effect, and this paper provides mechanistic insights into that,” comments Pere Puigserver, a Harvard biologist who studies SIRT1. But the resveratrol data should be taken with caution, he notes. While this new research clearly shows the direct relationship between BRCA1 and SIRT1, the direct link between resveratrol and SIRT1 is more difficult to demonstrate.

Nonetheless, molecular details of BRCA1-related breast cancer are emerging, and this new data places SIRT1 squarely inside the complex web of molecules that impact tumor growth.

One of the main reasons that sirtuins are suspected of having cancer-promoting properties in some circumstances is that they may inhibit the highly important p53 tumor suppressor gene. (P53, when functioning properly, promotes cell apoptosis when DNA defects are detected during cell division.) In just one example of many, here's research from earlier this year that suggests a tumor-promoting property of sirtuins:

Switching on cancer killer gene (5/8/08)
Scottish scientists have discovered how to control a major anti-tumour gene that could lead to more effective chemotherapy. According to a report in the Cancer Cell Journal, research conducted by the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee may eventually lead to the development of new cancer drugs.

The gene, called p53 and known as "the guardian of the genome", is damaged or switched off in most cancers. But the resrchers found that they could reboot it using two new biological compounds called "tenovins".

In a laboratory study, the academics found that these compounds could kick-start p53 by turning off enzymes called sirtuins. Sirtuins act like genetic switches and keep p53 under control, ensuring that the cells stay alive.

Other news accounts of this research: here, here.

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