The so-called "Humpty Dumpty" chromosomes may cause cancer to develop much more quickly than usual because they contain many mutations in the same cell, says New Scientist's Catherine de Lange. Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute researcher Peter Campbell was studying genes from a leukemia patient when he saw a chromosome that looked like it had been "smashed into hundreds of fragments and stuck back together, Humpty Dumpty-like," instead of committing cell suicide as would normally be expected, de Lange says. The resulting mess contained several cancer-causing mutations, she adds. Campbell, who published a study on the phenomenon in Cell, sequenced the genes of more than 700 people looking for the abnormality and found the same pattern in about 2 to 3 percent of them. Those cells, Campbell tells de Lange, have taken a "significant leap on the road to cancer." Cells were thought to accumulate mutations slowly, one by one, over the course of many years, adds The New York Times' Nicholas Wade. This shattering effect on the chromosomes shows instead that many mutations can be formed in one event. Though he doesn't know the cause, Campbell says that the damage to the chromosomes can be caused by "a pulse of radiation," Wade reports. Though the discovery doesn't yet have any implications for cancer treatment, the researchers say it explains why some cancers sometimes seem to appear suddenly and aggressively, despite routine screenings.
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