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Lab Talk: Lung cancer and burning fat


Two researchers tell us about papers that have intrigued them.


Lung cancer drivers in the hot seat

Neil Watkins

An X-ray shows cancer in the left lung of a 55-year-old patient. – Gilles Podevins/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Much progress has come from identifying the mutant genes that drive cancer-cell division and targeting them with new drugs. The whole process has sped up as ever-cheaper DNA sequencing detects hundreds of mutations in patients’ cancers.

Neil Watkins

But while some of these mutations undoubtedly “drive” the cancer, others are very likely “passengers” – genes that have suffered damage in the fast lane of life as a cancer cell.

As only the drivers are worth targeting, how do researchers tell them apart? A new study of mouse lung cancer provides some vital clues. MIT researchers sequenced the DNA of a mouse model of lung cancers at stages during its progression to increasingly deadly forms. They found that some of the genes that drove the progression of those stages were similar to the ones seen in human beings. The model should help to sort the drivers from passengers.

Paper: Genetic and Clonal Dissection of Murine Small Cell Lung Carcinoma Progression by Genome Sequencing. Cell, 2014, vol 156, p1298-1311

Fat burning gets a workout

Bronwyn Kingwell

Working muscles is one way to rev up fat-cell metabolism. – iStock

Whether you work out in the gym or sit outside in the cold, you’ll consume fat and glucose. A recent pair of studies explains what unites these activities and fat burning: a hormone called Meteorin-like (Metrnl).

Bronwyn Kingwell

Working muscles or cold fat cells release Metrnl, which then revs up fat-cell metabolism to release heat. It does it with ordinary white fat, but is especially effective in brown fat. These fat deposits, which carry energy-burning mitochondria that make them look brown, are found in hibernating animals, babies and in residual deposits on the back of adults’ necks. Metrnl also stimulates white fat to become a little browner. It has obvious potential as a therapeutic target for obesity, but for now, getting chilled or working out are the best options.

Papers: Meteorin-like Is a Hormone that Regulates Immune-Adipose Interactions to Increase Beige Fat Thermogenesis. Cell, 2014, vol 157, p1279-91.

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Neil Watkins researches cancer at the Gravan Institute in Sydney.
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Bronwyn Kingwell is a biomedical researcher at Baker IDI
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