Sleep-cancer link determined

5 December 2014

People who do not get the recommended amount of sleep could be putting themselves at risk of diseases, including cancer. 

A team at Virginia Tech has found a protein key in regulating the body's sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm, also defends against sporadic forms of cancers.

Dr Carla Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, and a Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Fellow, said the protein - human period 2 - has impaired function in the cell when environmental factors, such as sleep, are disrupted.

Published in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell, the study found that the human period 2 protein communicates with tumour suppressor proteins in cells, which control cell division, when unaltered by environmental factors.

The research, led by Tetsuya Gotoh, a research scientist in Dr Finkielstein's lab, changing the protein disables its function, meaning it is unable to safeguard the body by preventing cells from dividing.  

This is a significant problem as more than 80 per cent of cancers are caused by mutation in tumour suppressor genes.

During the study, the team studied various tumour cells from both animals and humans and found that repressing the human period 2 gene led to both abnormal sleep patterns and a malignant transformation.

Further research is now focusing on trying to determine the risk of developing cancer from a malfunctioning protein and the gene that produces it. The results from these studies could help develop new therapies to prevent patients at risk because of bad sleep patterns, such as those working night shifts.

"These findings highlight the complexity of the circadian-controlled network and emphasise its physiological relevance for human health and for new therapeutic interventions," Dr Finkielstein said.

Ignacio Provencio, a professor of biology at the University of Virginia who was not involved with the study, said the past two decades has seen much progress made in what is known about the inner workings of the body clock, which controls the sleep:wake cycle and a whole host of other daily bodily rhythms.

"The Finkielstein lab discovered that a molecular gear of this clock interacts directly with a well-studied protein whose role is to suppress tumour formation. This remarkable finding is likely to provide insight into how disruption of the internal clock can lead to cancer."

Dr Finkielstein has been responsible for much research that tries to connect disruptions in the sleep pattern to diseases, especially the development of cancer. There has been particular focus on the incidence of breast cancer in women who work night shifts like nurses and flight attendants.

Posted by Edward Bartel


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