Defects in the gene are believed to be involved in a wide range of cancers - including the most common tumours of the colon, lungs and breasts - and the research could eventually lead to new treatments aimed at correcting the genetic faults.
The discovery, published in the journal Cell, is the latest success in cancer genetics. Scientists are heralding it as one of the most important breakthroughs to date because the new gene seems to be involved in so many different types of cancer.
A team of scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research and University College London found the gene, called Bcl10, after analysing the stomach tumour of a 75-year-old man.
They subsequently found that a number of patients suffering from a range of cancers carried mutations of the same gene, indicating the genetic faults may be important in tumour development.
The only other cancer gene implicated in so many kinds of cancer is the p53 gene, which is known to suppress cancer in its normal form but which can trigger a tumour to grow when the gene is damaged.
Martin Dyer, a leader of the team from the Institute of Cancer Research, said the gene could prove to be one of the most important discoveries in cancer research. "This is only the second gene to be discovered which is implicated in such a large number of cancers. The first was p53, which is abnormal in about 50 per cent of all cancers. Our preliminary results indicate that Bcl10 is contributing to the development of at least as many," he said.
Mutations in Bcl10 could be an "early event'' leading to cancer, he added. "It may be that chronic exposure to cigarette smoke or asbestos may ultimately be responsible for Bcl10 mutations."
Studies have shown that the gene is implicated in the natural mechanism the body uses to kill its cells should they become defective. Defects in the gene seem to prevent this cell suicide, causing a tumour to grow.
David Lane, professor of molecular oncology at Dundee University, who was involved in identifying the p53 gene in 1979, said the importance of the Bcl10 gene will become apparent only when scientists identify the precise number of cancers linked with its mutations. "It's clearly involved in programmed cell death and it is directly relevant to human cancer," Professor Lane said.
Professor Peter Garland, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research, said further studies on Bcl10 could lead to new ways of fighting cancer. He added that, for example, "mutated Bcl10 may provide a suitable target for the design of a new cancer drug".
Bruce Ponder, professor of oncology at Cambridge University, said the discovery of genes involved in cancer is helping scientists to understand not only what triggers the disease, but how to prevent it.
"In many ways we're still dancing around the problem, but more and more genes are emerging that enable us to build up a clear picture of the problem," Professor Ponder said.Reuse content