First discovered in the 1980s, the MYC gene is known to be important in many types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer and several blood cancers. It is often found in abnormally high levels in tumours, and is thought to be involved in up to 70% of all cancers.
Known as an ‘oncogene’ (cancer-promoting gene), MYC is normally involved in cell division in healthy cells, but can also drive the growth of cancer cells when at abnormally high levels, or ‘switched on’ (expressed) at the wrong time and place.
In 1991, scientists discovered that the MYC gene makes a protein (called a ‘transcription factor’) that can boost the activity of other cancer-promoting genes. In other words, it seems MYC not only acts as an oncogene itself, but also controls the activity of other oncogenes – so is a kind of head oncogene.
Laboratory experiments showed that ‘switching off’ the MYC gene in cancer cells could make tumours shrink, and actually stop cancer from progressing. Researchers all around the world are now trying to develop drugs designed to specifically target the MYC gene and inhibit its action.
MYC-blocking therapies belong to a new group of anti-cancer treatments called ‘targeted therapies’ –therapies designed to target a particular gene, protein, or other molecule that controls cancer cell growth and survival.
Many people believe we are on the brink of a new era in cancer treatment, based on our understanding of genes like MYC – a time when targeted therapies offer a safer and more effective way to treat cancer, and perhaps even cure it. Time will tell.