Microscopic discovery no small find

Move over endoplasmic reticulum, there’s a new cellular structure in town!

Researchers at the University of Calgary have made a surprising discovery in the field of cellular biology–a previously undiscovered part of the cell called GW bodies.

GW bodies play an important part in gene regulation and may influence how cells function. This discovery has big implications for cancer and auto-immune disease treatments, and it fundamentally changes the established understanding of how cells work.

“This is very different from what most people learn in cellular biology,” said Dr. Marvin J. Fritzler, U of C professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biology.

GW bodies seem to regulate how bits of genetic material called microRNA switch genes off to control cell reproduction and growth. If the microRNA fails to turn off genes it could lead to the wild cell growth characteristic of cancer cells. This finding has implications for breast cancer and immunology research as well as gene therapy.

Scientists may one day be able to control microRNA so that it targets genes implicated in cancer and other genetically influenced diseases.

These amazing little structures first came to light when Dr. Doug Zochodne sent the lab a blood sample from a patient with an autoimmune disorder. The team noticed something very unusual, the antibodies in the blood were reacting with a specific part inside the cell.

“We weren’t surprised,” said Fritzler. “Initially we were frightened. We thought we might have made a mistake.” But, there was no mistake, the team discovered a bona fide new cellular structure, and that was not all.

“We ended up unearthing three brand new genes,” said Fritzler, noting the genes were in turn making new proteins.

Equally exciting is the local involvement in the research.

“There is a huge Calgary connection,” said Fritzler. “The ties reach all the way to our collaborators at the University of Florida. Both doctors there [collaborating on the research] earned their PhDs at U of C.”

The research will be published in the December issue of the prestigious journal Nature Cell Biology.

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