Healthcare Technology Featured Article

January 22, 2013

Cambridge University Researchers Find Quadruple Helix DNA in Humans

It’s become one of the most iconic symbols of science along with the nuclear symbol: the double helix of DNA, which spells out the genetic code of living things. Scientists at Cambridge University in England have found that some cells in humans have a quadruple helix and the findings could help improve cancer treatment in the future.

The cells with these quadruple helixes appear to be related to cancer, but researchers are working on exploring the relationship between these cells and cancer more thoroughly.

“The existence of these structures may be loaded when the cell has a certain genotype or a certain dysfunctional state,” Cambridge chemistry professor Shankar Balasubramanian told the BBC.

“We need to prove that; but if that is the case, targeting them with synthetic molecules could be an interesting way of selectively targeting those cells that have this dysfunction,” he said.

Scientists have been able to produce the quadruple-helix DNA, known as G-quadruplex (the “G” stands for “Guanine,” one of the main chemicals in DNA that holds it together), for years. The new research is the first time such a cell has been found in human DNA.

Image via Fox News
Quadruplex DNA strands are seen at left, while fluorescent stains at right reveal their presence in human cell nuclei and chromosomes.

Balasubramanian’s team produced antibody proteins that were designed to find and bind to parts of human DNA that had quadruplex structure. The scientists tagged the protein with a fluorescence marker to make it easy to find and image.

The researchers found that the quadruple helix structure appeared when a cell was in its “S-phase,” when it copies its DNA before dividing.

Balasubramanian believes that when scientists know more about the relationship between the quadruple helix structure and cancer, they can design more effective treatments for certain cancers.

“We've come a long way in 10 years, from simple ideas to really seeing some substance in the existence and tractability of targeting these funny structures,” he told the BBC. “I'm hoping now that the pharmaceutical companies will bring this on to their radar and we can perhaps take a more serious look at whether quadruplexes are indeed therapeutically viable targets.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick, both Cambridge scientists, announcing their discovery of the original double helix that’s become so familiar to many.

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