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Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2012 Jun;31(1-2):1-19. doi: 10.1007/s10555-011-9325-9.

Potential roles for prions and protein-only inheritance in cancer.

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  • 1Griffith Health Institute, Griffith University, Southport, Queensland, Australia. helmageorge@gmail.com


Inherited mutations are known to cause familial cancers. However, the cause of sporadic cancers, which likely represent the majority of cancers, is yet to be elucidated. Sporadic cancers contain somatic mutations (including oncogenic mutations); however, the origin of these mutations is unclear. An intriguing possibility is that a stable alteration occurs in somatic cells prior to oncogenic mutations and promotes the subsequent accumulation of oncogenic mutations. This review explores the possible role of prions and protein-only inheritance in cancer. Genetic studies using lower eukaryotes, primarily yeast, have identified a large number of proteins as prions that confer dominant phenotypes with cytoplasmic (non-Mendelian) inheritance. Many of these have mammalian functional homologs. The human prion protein (PrP) is known to cause neurodegenerative diseases and has now been found to be upregulated in multiple cancers. PrP expression in cancer cells contributes to cancer progression and resistance to various cancer therapies. Epigenetic changes in the gene expression and hyperactivation of MAP kinase signaling, processes that in lower eukaryotes are affected by prions, play important roles in oncogenesis in humans. Prion phenomena in yeast appear to be influenced by stresses, and there is considerable evidence of the association of some amyloids with biologically positive functions. This suggests that if protein-only somatic inheritance exists in mammalian cells, it might contribute to cancer phenotypes. Here, we highlight evidence in the literature for an involvement of prion or prion-like mechanisms in cancer and how they may in the future be viewed as diagnostic markers and potential therapeutic targets.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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