Quebec Discoveries of the Year: Controlling Messenger RNA, Breast Cancer Breakthrough

Two McGill research projects earned spots on Québec Science‘s prestigious Ten Discoveries of the Year list for 2007.

The magazine tipped its cap to McGill scientists who developed a novel system to study the control of genes in a test tube. Nahum Sonenberg, James McGill Professor of Biochemistry, Thomas Duchaîne, assistant professor in biochemistry at the McGill Cancer Centre, and research leaders and postdoctoral fellows Geraldine Mathonnet and Marc Fabian used microRNA (a class of tiny nucleic acids) to control messenger RNA in a test tube. Messenger RNA relays genetic coding information from DNA to a cell’s ribosomes, where protein synthesis occurs; microRNA recently emerged as a major regulator of this “translation” process. This study—funded by CIHR, the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec and the Human Frontier Science Program—marks the first successful assessment of microRNA control of translation outside the confines of a living cell. Researchers will now be able to study the mechanisms by which they control the flow of genetic information and, therefore, protein expression. “These microRNA control 30 per cent of all genes in a body,” says Sonenberg. “They are important to cancer development and progression. If we know how to control microRNA, we can control cancer and other diseases.” The team (which includes collaborators at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Case Western Reserve University, Warsaw University and the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research) published their findings in the journal Science in July 2007.

Québec Science kudos also went to Dr. Michel Tremblay, director of the McGill Cancer Centre and the Jeanne and Jean-Louis Lévesque Chair in Cancer Research, for his discovery that 40 per cent of breast cancer cases in women present overexpression of the PTB1b gene. At normal levels, PTB1b’s enzyme helps regulate cell growth and cell division, but too much PTB1b causes unchecked cellular growth. Eight years ago, Tremblay linked the gene to obesity and diabetes. Pharmaceutical companies are already doing human trials for PTB1b-suppressing drugs, leaving him optimistic that a breakthrough breast cancer drug may be on the horizon. “Adapting these compounds is all that is needed to attack breast cancer,” he explains. Tremblay’s research is funded by the Cancer Research Society, CIHR, the Weekend to End Breast Cancer and Rethink Breast Cancer.