Scientists now have a toehold on a slippery problem in cancer biology: the action of BRCA1, the gene most likely to be mutated in inherited breast cancer.
In its normal form, the gene encodes a tumor-suppressing protein, BRCA1. Previous genetic studies suggested that this protein protects against cancer by aiding in the repair of damaged DNA (SN: 4/15/00, p. 247). Now, a team of microbiologists led by Tanya T. Paull of the University of Texas in Austin has observed directly what BRCA1 is up to. The protein can seek out and attach to damaged DNA, the researchers report in the May 22 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The role of BRCA1 in cancer suppression has been "like a black box," says Jeffrey D. Parvin of Harvard University, who wrote a commentary that accompanies the report. "Inside that black box is a machine. This [finding] gives you an idea of one of the gears in that machine."