January 05, 2018

Why did scientists link Norse legend to cancer?

January 05, 2018

Curated by Nicolas Gutierrez, MSc, PhD

Scientists have recently found that switching off the coincidentally named THOR gene can prevent tumour growth in the skin and lungs.

In 10 seconds – DNA in our genome is labelled ‘junk’ when it lacks obviously useful genetic code. It turns out some of this ‘junk DNA’ contains the THOR gene, which can knock back certain cancers when switched off. (Read more about junk DNA)

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Easy with that hammer! I thought all DNA was important… Well, indeed the genome holds our individual ‘blueprints’. But the majority of the DNA in our genomes is actually not easily identifiable as crucial for our cells to work properly. These parts are often called ‘junk DNA’. (Learn more about non-coding DNA)

Then what is this ‘junk’ good for? For a long time, scientists thought “absolutely nothing!” Hence the unflattering names. Genes in these shady areas of the genome lack the instructions for assembling proteins, which are essential workers within our cells. Yet it turns out, such genes play a vital role in keeping us healthy or making us ill. (More on the non-coding genome)

Oh, how so? Imagine your DNA as an important guidebook that must be kept in a secure library – and if you want to build any proteins, you must photocopy the relevant codes and take those pages out of the library. These ‘photocopies’ are made of DNA-like molecules called RNA. The last few decades of research into RNA has shown that they can be as powerful as proteins in steering our cells away from cancer. (More about the link to cancer)

And how does THOR come into all this? Scientists recently made an astonishing discovery: an ancient RNA that was important enough to stay the same throughout evolution in humans, mice, and even all the way back to… zebrafish. They called it THOR, which stands for – and sounds much cooler than – Testis-associated Highly-conserved Oncogenic long non-coding RNA. The latest studies have shown that THOR is switched on in cancer cells, whilst disarming THOR slowed the development of tumours. (Find out how)

So, confiscating THOR’s hammer can give hope to millions? We’ll have to wait for clinical trials, but it does look like a promising research direction, especially for those suffering from skin and lung cancer. Scientists also found that blocking THOR slowed down cancerous cell growth but did not affect healthy cells, offering new ways to design cancer-busting drugs.


Zebrafish, aka science’s little BFF

Like THOR, the tiny zebrafish has a superpower: it can heal its own heart. But this isn’t why it became researchers’ best friend…

Young zebrafish are transparent, which makes studying its growing cells possible without touching the fish. They also multiply at an astounding rate and has a genome that is 70% similar to ours.

Thanks to zebrafish, scientists have been able to study a wide range of genes involved in human diseases.


Psst, Nicolas distilled 9 research papers to save you 467.3 minutes.

Curated by

Nicolas Gutierrez, MSc, PhD

Nicolas is a postdoctoral researcher specialising in mitochondria and genetics.

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