A study led by Professor Daniel Tenen, Director of the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore) at NUS, has found that SALL4 – a potent stem cell gene and an emerging oncogene (cancer-causing gene) – can be used as a prognostic marker as well as a therapeutic target for HCC. The scientists also proposed an approach that inactivates the gene to kill HCC cells and prevent tumour formation.
Prof Tenen led the study on SALL4, a stem cell gene
The findings were published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on 13 June 2013. Two patent applications have been filed on the breakthrough work.
According to the Singapore Cancer Registry, liver cancer is the third most common cancer among males and fifth most common cancer among females in the country. The current diagnosis of HCC includes ultrasound, liver biopsy, computerised tomography, magnetic resonance imaging as well as blood tests to detect the presence of alpha-fetoprotein, a cancer marker.
In terms of treatment, surgical resection is the most viable treatment option for liver cancer, said Prof Tenen. However, this is only possible for early-stage liver tumours. “What urgently needs to be addressed is the development of more effective targeted therapies, and this is where our research comes in,” he highlighted.
The team analysed 171 and 228 samples from Singapore and Hong Kong respectively. PhD candidate Ms Yong Kol Jia, also from CSI Singapore, said that liver cancer patients have high levels of SALL4 in their liver. Patients who expressed high levels of SALL4 tended to do worse compared to those who do not express the gene. With the knowledge of SALL4’s role, HCC cells can be identified earlier and eradicated to halt progression to cancer.
The understanding may also contribute towards improving treatment for other types of cancers such as ovarian, endometrial, gastric, breast and lung cancers, as well as leukaemia.
Kol Jia pipetting reagents to test SALL4 expression
The research was carried out in collaboration with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the National University Health System, Queen Mary Hospital Hong Kong, Queen’s University Belfast and Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
National University of Singapore.