Can a gene counteract aging and prevent us from getting cancer?

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Jan. 21, 2016


Mila Rossi

Story image

Dr. David Yu and Amanda Bastien, a research specialist in the Yu Lab, examine pipettes with DNA damage induced by micro-radiation from a laser. They are able to observe and follow the movement of SIRT2 to the DNA-damaged sites in real-time through a microscope. Bastien, applying for medical school this spring, says, "I'd like to leave knowing I've contributed to cancer research."

Aging increases our risk of getting cancer. What if we could control the effects of aging in our bodies in order to prevent or cure cancer? Researcher and physician David S. Yu, MD, PhD, in the Department of Radiation Oncology, is working in his lab to learn more about the gene SIRT2.

In 1999 researchers (Kaeberlein et al.) found that extra copies of a newly discovered gene, silent information regulator 2 or Sir2, extended the lifespan of common brewer’s yeast by 50%. Deleting the gene, in turn, reduced the yeast’s longevity. Since then researchers have discovered that extra Sir2 may help to suppress cancerous tumors in mice while too few of this gene has led to cancers in mice.

Researchers are working to see if the same findings in mice and yeast can be translated to humans. Could this new gene, Sir2, extend our lifespan and keep us from getting cancer? The Yu Lab is investigating how SIRT2 (a human form of yeast Sir2) mechanisms could benefit cancer patients.

“SIRT2 has been identified as a regulator of aging and a tumor suppressor. As we age, our body’s capacity to respond to stress deteriorates. On a cellular level, the ability to identify and kill cancerous mutations and to repair damaged DNA is greatly reduced. SIRT2 plays a major role in sensing and coordinating our body’s stress response to these effects of aging and to age-related diseases such as cancer,” says Yu.

Yu has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, in the form of a R01 research grant (R01-CA178999), to focus on SIRT2. $1.6 million will fund his lab, personnel and research over a 5 year period.

Yu says that in a year or two they will be ready to start a clinical trial. If researchers in the Yu lab can manipulate the SIRT2 gene, they may be able to regulate our body’s response to aging-related diseases like cancer. The benefits for patients at Winship could be seen in the next few years.

David S. Yu, MD, PhD, is a board certified radiation oncologist in the Department of Radiation Oncology. He practices general radiation oncology and specializes in the treatment of head and neck cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer.

Dr. Yu is actively engaged in both clinical and basic science research. He is interested in understanding how cells respond to replication stress and how we can utilize this knowledge for improvements in cancer diagnosis and treatment. He oversees a research laboratory with eight lab personnel.