Singapore researchers make advances in cancer-linked genomics

Two separate teams of researchers in Singapore are working to understand the roles that different parts of the genome play in the development of cancer, with the aim that their studies may lead to more targeted diagnostics and treatment.

Researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) have developed software that allows scientists to study the role of gene promoters in cancer.

Meanwhile, a research team from the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) has identified a genetic biomarker that can estimate the likelihood of a brain tumour becoming aggressive.

The human genome is made up of DNA, which contains many sets of codes on how our cells should function.

The instructions are called genes, of which there are hundreds upon thousands that all code for different things.

Cancer develops when genes change the way healthy cells function, grow and divide. Understanding which genes (and what part of those genes) aid in the growth of cancer would allow for better diagnostics and treatment.

The specialised software developed by a research team from A*Star's Genome Institute of Singapore can identify active promoters on a genome-wide scale. Promoters are like a switch that can turn a gene on. Different genes can have multiple promoters that will change the way they are expressed.

Their work was published in the Sept 5 issue of Cell journal.

The software, named proActiv, processed genetic data to identify unique promoters in cancer genes.

The team used proActiv to process more than 18,000 cancer samples in publicly available data.

Using this new method, they uncovered promoters that were associated with different survival rates for cancer patients, forming a new class of biomarkers.

Before their study, there were no comprehensive studies that researched how alternative promoters impacted survival rates.

The NNI team discovered a biomarker associated with an aggressive brain tumour called glioblastoma. Its study, published in the Aug 9 issue of Nature Communications, identified a set of genes that corresponded to elevated levels of a protein referred to as STAT3.

The activation of these genes was linked with a higher likelihood of glioblastoma forming and spreading quickly.

The study concluded that the new biomarker outperforms current clinical indicators. The researchers hope their work will lead to better diagnostics and treatments for patients with glioblastoma. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Singapore researchers make advances in cancer-linked genomics'. Print Edition | Subscribe