New research is yielding new information about the genes that dictate the circadian rhythm, information that may be used to treat and even cure cancer in the future.
Cancer is one of the most dreaded diseases a person can get. Battling cancer is always a fight for your life, and many of the treatments can be as debilitating as the disease. However, understanding the genes that dictate the circadian rhythm can help us to treat cancer more effectively and with fewer side effects.
Treating Breast Cancer with the Genes that Dictate the Circadian Rhythm
When it comes to treating breast cancer, receptors are everything. One of the first steps after a breast cancer diagnosis is to genotype the cancer, finding out what receptors and genes it has. This knowledge is crucial because these receptors are essential for cancer to grow and metastasize, which makes them a weak spot from which we can attack the enemy. Breast cancer that lacks an estrogen receptor is one of the most difficult kinds to treat because it lacks this Achilles heel. However, a circadian clock gene called ARNTL2 may be a future avenue of treatment.
Like many clock genes, ARNTL2 is an essential part of growth and metabolism, making it essential for cancer to metastasize. People who have cancer with high levels of ARNTL2 activity are more likely to see their cancers metastasize and to ultimately die from the disease. The fact that a circadian rhythm gene is involved in cancer growth and metastasis may explain why people who work odd hours, especially women, are more likely to develop cancer.
Helping Cancer Patients to Breathe Easier
Breast cancer is not the only malignancy to be linked to circadian rhythm genes. Lung cancer appears to depend on a different set of genes that also function as internal clocks, Per2 and BMAL1. When people lose the function of these genes in mutations, they are more likely to develop lung cancer and also more likely to have metastases. Losing these genes, which are part of ‘checkpoints’ that control growth and development, leads to uncontrolled growth and, eventually, cancer.
The Link Between Shift Work and Cancer
Prostate cancer is another disease that devastates many people. Like breast cancer, prostate cancer can often be treated by attacking the receptors that govern its growth. In the case of prostate cancer, a multitude of different hormones and receptors are involved. Melatonin appears to suppress several of these clock genes, suppressing their activation and thus suppressing the growth of prostate cancer. This may be why men who have jobs that require shift work are more likely to develop this cancer and are also more likely to die from it. Medications are already being developed to suppress these receptors to prevent these tumors from growing, metastasizing and ultimately from taking more lives.
Understanding the human circadian rhythm can produce information that allows us to sleep more easily. However, this knowledge can also help us to more effectively treat cancer and to give health back to the people who most need it. The genes that dictate the circadian rhythm are also genes that control a multitude of processes within the body so understanding them can have a huge impact on human health.