Fall 2011

Molecular Biologist Isolates the TOR Gene in Cells to Find New Cures for Cancer

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Later, it was discovered that Rapamycin, attached to the TOR gene, also suppressed certain types of cancers in specific individuals. Rapamycin is now already used to treat certain types of cancer.

It is this gene that is the focus of Dr. Weisman's research. She was able to isolate and identify the TOR genes in the yeast models she uses. The essential goal of her research is to discover how the TOR gene is responsible for cell growth and divisions, why certain target proteins mutate and others don't, how genes subdivide, and which genes participate and which don't.

"I concentrate on one gene -- TOR -- because it is a very essential one, controlling many other genes. To understand how TOR regulates cell division, we have to isolate the genes that are regulated by TOR and learn their specific function within the cells, and then I investigate its exact function in regulating cell division."

On the Right Road

While working with the yeast models, Dr. Weisman learned that TOR doesn't work alone but rather binds to other partner proteins. "There are two copies of the gene that have similar encodings but are slightly different: TOR1 and TOR2. And their differences are manifested," Ronit explains, "in the functions that they serve. To determine their functionality, for example, you might remove or suppress a gene and see what functions are not being performed as needed. TOR2, for example, is responsible for growth; without it, cells can no longer subdivide."

This is crucial when treating cancer. Cancer cells are distinguished by their uninhibited growth and gene subdivision. "Cancer cells not only subdivide but they may also become aggressive, traveling quickly throughout the body."

One of Dr. Weisman's recent discoveries focuses on the new cell functions of the TOR gene. During her research, it became clear that the TOR gene influences the response to damage of the DNA in the cell. "This discovery is important because it opens a new front on a more effective battle against cancer. If, until now, we thought that we could battle cancer using Rapamycin medication which attacks TOR, now we are checking the possibility that the cells where TOR's activity is inhibited, become sensitive to DNA damage. If that is so, it will be worthwhile to combine Rapamycin treatments with chemotherapy. This can result in the cessation of cell division making cancer treatment more effective, as it is being attacked on two fronts."

Understanding how TOR works at the cellular level can thus help us understand how cells function in health and disease, and may help us combat uncontrolled cell divisions that lead to cancer.

If, Dr. Ronit Weisman can succeed in inhibiting the function of this gene, then "it may lead to the discovery of a good anti-cancer medication." At the Open University, we feel confident she is on the right track.
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