Bigger is not better: Quadruple helix in cells linked to cancer

Quick! 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of what world-changing historic event?

Let me rephrase that: 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of what world-changing historic event that’s neither the birth of James Bond nor the first color televisions? Hint: this is the science, tech and health section, so it’s something related to one of those things.

In January, 1953 (although they wouldn’t publicly announce their discovery for another month), Francis Crick and James Watson used x-ray diffractions taken by Rosalind Franklin to deduce DNA’s double-helical structure. This was an amazing breakthrough in biology that explained everything that left scientists of the day shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hell if I know.” Barring mutations, the double helix allows DNA to replicate exactly and transcript into RNA so the code can eventually be translated into healthy proteins.

A more complex DNA helix is breaking through in science. Image from Deus Nexus.

A more complex DNA helix is breaking through in science. Image from Deus Nexus.

Fast forward half a dozen decades and Cambridge scientist Shankar Balasubramanian and his team announce the discovery of quadruple helix structures in human cells. Watson and Crick didn’t get it wrong. Good DNA still only has two strands, but until Dr. Balasubramanian’s discovery, four-stranded helixes were thought to exist solely in the labs that synthetically create them. Scientists call these quadruple helixes G-quadruplexes because they contain high amounts of guanine, one of the four nucleobases that make up DNA.

Dr. Balasubramanian discovered G-quadruplexes in cancer cells, suggesting a link between the two. Cancerous tumors form when cells lose the ability to limit their division and multiply out of control, so a connection to a flaw in the DNA structure isn’t far-fetched. Establishing a connection is promising news to cancer sufferers. If G-quadruplexes are unique to damaged cells, it will be possible to tag them and eventually develop cancer treatments that target only those tagged cancer cells. If so, this will be a remarkable improvement over the most common current treatments, which mostly involve crossing fingers and hoping the cancer loses its will to live before you do. Other researches tossed more ideas around, including using synthetic G-quadruplexes to block cell replication.

(Very science-savvy readers will point out that my beginning question has a second answer: the polio vaccine. Well, dearies, Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in late March, which if you hadn’t noticed is over a month away, so you’ll have to wait a little longer.)