Could we correct disease-causing genetic defects before they occur?

2011 Annual Report

Could we correct disease-causing genetic defects before they occur?

Dr. Sue Biggins

Dr. Sue Biggins

The human body contains more than a trillion cells, and it’s remarkable that the genetic information in each cell—in the form of 46 chromosomes—starts out the same. However, each time our cells divide, the potential for mistakes arises. Cancer cells, for instance, have the wrong number of chromosomes.

So how do our cells get all the right chromosomes when they divide?

For the first time, a scientific team, which included the Hutchinson Center’s Dr. Sue Biggins, discovered how cells stabilize their machinery for forcing apart chromosomes. When a cell gets ready to split into new cells, this steady mechanism permits the genetic material to be separated and distributed accurately.

The researchers isolated kinetochores, a tow truck-like mechanism for each chromosome that attaches to a structure called a spindle. They found that during cell division, kinetochores are under tremendous force as the spindle pulls the chromosome through the cell. The kinetochores manage to stay attached to the spindle by binding more tightly when force is applied, similar to a finger trap toy.

“Many cancer cells have mutations in the proteins that make up the kinetochore, so we are optimistic that we can now understand exactly what is wrong with kinetochores in cancer cells,” Biggins said. “This knowledge could potentially lead to ways to correct defects before they occur, or allow us to try to target cells with the wrong number of chromosomes to prevent them from dividing again.”