Scientists announced Monday the discovery of the first quadruple helix and it may help them prevent the cell replication at the root of cancer.
The research, published in the science journal "Nature Chemistry," showed a four-stranded DNA structure that scientists named G-quadruplex. The name was given based on the chemical bases that form the DNA guanine, adenine, cytosine and thymine. The G-quadruplex is said to form in DNA where guanine exists in large quantities.
By targeting the DNA chemical bases with synthetic molecules that contain them - in a sense controlling them, and preventing them from replicating their DNA and possibly blocking cell division - it may be possible to stop the spread of cancer, the research showed. The synthetic molecules could potentially block the cell proliferation at the root of tumors.
Controlling the structures is the key to fighting the disease.
"The existence of these structures may be loaded when the cell has a certain genotype or a certain dysfunctional state," said Prof Shankar Balasubramanian from Cambridge's department of chemistry. "We need to prove that; but if that is the case, targeting them with synthetic molecules could be an interesting way of selectively targeting those cells that have this dysfunction."
The research team behind the quadruple helix discovery was led by Guilia Biffi, a researcher in Balasubramanian's lab. The team produced antibody proteins designed to track and bind to regions of human DNA that were rich in the quadruplex structure, according to BBC. The antibodies were flagged with a fluorescence marker so the place of the structures' emergence in the cell cycle could be imaged and noted by scientists. This process revealed the four-stranded DNA, which arose most frequently duing the "s-phase," where a cell copies its DNA before dividing.
The discovery comes 60 years, exactly in February, after scientists James Watson and Francis Crick first described the double helix shape of the human DNA.
"It's been sixty years since its structure was solved but work like this shows us that the story of DNA continues to twist and turn," said Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK.