A common cause of cancer is when cells are altered or mutated and the body’s tumor suppressor genes are switched off. Scientists at the University of Nottingham have managed to bring cancer cells back under control by reactivating the cells’ cancer suppressor genes using an extract from axolotl oocytes. The scientists say the discovery could form a powerful new technology platform for the treatment of a variety of cancers.

The process of cell division is controlled by specific genes and these are turned “on” or “off” depending on their function. Among the most important of these genes are tumor suppressor genes. These genes repress the development of cancers and normally act as a control point in the cell division cycle. Therefore, the switching off of tumor suppressor genes is a common cause of cancers.

The on/off switch in genes is controlled by the modification of proteins that are bound to the DNA in a cell, which are known as epigenetic modifications. Tumour suppressor genes in many cancers are switched off by epigenetic marks, which is the underlying cause of tumors.

In an effort to reverse this process the researchers looked to the axolotl salamander – an animal well known for its ability to regenerate most of its body parts. The scientists found that humans evolved from animals that closely resemble axolotls and therefore, proteins in axolotls are very similar to those in humans. Axolotl oocytes – eggs prior to ovulation – are also packed with molecules that have very powerful epigenetic modifying activity and a powerful capacity to change epigenetic marks on the DNA of human cells.

By treating the cancerous cells with axolotl oocyte extract, the researchers were able to reactivate the tumor suppressor genes and stop the cancer from growing. After 60 days there was still no evidence of cancerous growth.

The researchers say the identification of the proteins in axolotl oocytes responsible for this tumor reversing activity is a major goal of future research, and could form a powerful weapon in the fight against cancer.

The University of Nottingham team’s research appears in the journal Molecular Cancer.