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Doctors here find key to cancer battle

Dublin researchers have made a medical breakthrough which could improve the treatment of leukaemia, spina bifida and cancer.

The scientists at Dublin City University have discovered that a gene, previously regarded as an inactive "zombie", has a crucial role in these diseases.

Chief executive of the Health Research Board, Enda Connolly, said the findings could "open up countless new avenues for cancer treatment in general".


Dr Ann Parle-McDermott and her team at DCU have found that the "zombie" gene has an active role in the spread of cancer together with another "cousin" gene.

The cousin gene is normally knocked out in leukaemia treatment to make the cancer cells die, but knocking the two genes out together could improve the success rate of treatment.

Up to 250 people are year are diagnosed with leukaemia which has four different forms. Leukaemia accounts for about one in every 40 cases of diagnosed cancer and one in 40 cancer deaths.

Mr Connolly said: "Once again, Irish health research and Irish researchers have made a significant discovery on the Irish and global stage.

"Not only do their findings offer the potential for improved leukaemia treatment, but it could rewrite what we thought we knew about so-called zombie genes and open up countless new avenues for cancer treatment in general."

Dr Parle-McDermott says the finding could also be significant in spina bifida research as the gene is involved in the regulation of folic acid.

The zombie gene might allow a test to warn if a woman is at higher risk of having a baby with the condition.


Ireland has one of the highest incidences of spina bifida births in the world, which affects one in every 1,000 children born here.

Spina bifida is the most common neural tube defect which causes incomplete development of the spinal cord. Its name means 'split spine'.

Funded by the Health Research Board, the findings from Dr Parle-McDermott and her team at DCU are published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.