Researchers have identified a gene that contributes to the development of several childhood cancers, in a study conducted with mice designed to model the cancers. If the findings prove to be applicable to humans, the research could lead to new strategies for targeting certain childhood cancers at a molecular level.

 “We and others have found that Lin28b—a gene that is normally turned on in fetal but not adult tissues—is expressed in several childhood cancers, including neuroblastoma, Wilms’ tumor, and hepatoblastoma, a type of cancer that accounts for nearly 80% of all liver tumors in children,” said Hao Zhu, MD, a principal investigator at the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute (CRI) at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. “In our study, we found that overproduction of Lin28b specifically causes hepatoblastoma, while blocking Lin28b impairs the cancer’s growth. This opens up the possibility that pediatric liver cancer patients could one day be treated without resorting to chemotherapy.”

The study was published in Cancer Cell (2014; doi:10.1016/j.ccr.2014.06.018).

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Lin28b is an attractive therapeutic target in cancer because it is ordinarily only expressed in embryos, so blocking it in children should specifically hinder cancer growth without introducing many side effects.

Each year in the United States, 700 cases of neuroblastoma are newly diagnosed in children, 500 cases of Wilms’ tumor, and 100 cases of hepatoblastoma. At Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, more than 100 children have been treated for those three types of cancers over the last 2 years.

Previous studies found that Lin28b is a critical factor in stem cell and fetal tissue development, leading Zhu and his team to hypothesize that the same gene would play a significant role in the development of certain cancers.

“We looked at Lin28b in a multitude of ways in mice to study its effects on cancer, from increasing it significantly to deleting it,” said Zhu. “From this and earlier studies, it appears that Lin28b activates the metabolic pathways that provide the building blocks of growth for certain cancers.”

The next step for the Zhu lab is to establish whether genes related to Lin28b have similar effects on the development of cancer, and to determine if those genes might be more effective targets for potential therapies.