Brachyury discovery contributes to undressing of human health, cancer and ageing

The Cell Differentiation group, from the North West Cancer Research Institute within Bangor University’s School of Medical Sciences have identified a sub-group of cells within in the normal adult human gut which are marked by the presence of a protein, known as Brachyury, which was previously thought only to be active during embryonic development and cancer.

Brachyury (which means short tail in Greek, as mice with only one copy of the gene have a short tail), is a transcription factor, meaning that it can turn other genes on and off.

The group, writing in the journal Oncotarget, noticed that Brachyury is present in the healthy small intestine and colon in a cell type called the enteroendocrine cells. These cells normally specialise in producing gastrointestinal hormones.

Interestingly, in model systems, these cells have been shown to have the capacity to regenerate tissue after damage and are able to give rise to multipotent stem cells. Studies in the gut have shown that stem cells that accumulate mutations eventually become cancer stem cells which are believed to aberrantly generate tumours instead of normal functional tissue.

This link between normal tissue homeostasis and the generation of cancer tissue is interesting, given that in cancer Brachyury becomes active in a wider range of cells, regulating diverse tumour-related functions. Studying the many roles that Brachyury plays in tissues contributes to our understanding of human health, cancer and ageing."

Publication date: 6 April 2016