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C. Elegans: Of Worms and Men

The tiny worm C. elegans may hold clues to extending life, correcting the harm done by diabetes and inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

By Lauren Ware // The MGH Research Issue 2011
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Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at MGH, studies the worm C. elegans with the goal of finding genes—often those carrying the code for small RNA molecules called microRNAs—that have human counterparts. In its search for pathways involved in human disease and aging, his team of researchers deactivates individual genes in the worm, then observes the impact on C. elegans.

 

DISEASE PROCESS

C. ELEGANS FINDING

IMPLICATIONS FOR HUMANS

AGING DAF-2 insulin receptor gene, part of an insulinlike signaling pathway that regulates aging This pathway could lead to strategies for delaying age-related diseases and perhaps even extend life.
DIABETES DAF-16/FoxO, a transcription factor in another part of the signaling pathway involved in aging that plays a crucial role in metabolic responses to insulin Researchers are looking for ways to modify this pathway with drugs to correct diabetes’ underlying metabolic and cellular defects.
CANCER Let-7, a microRNA discovered at MGH by Frank Slack, turns genes on and off in cancer. When let-7 genes are suppressed, cells divide abnormally—a behavior typical of cancer. When the level of let-7 is abnormally high, it inhibits growth of lung cancer cells, so scientists are working to develop drugs that can use this microRNA to suppress tumors.
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A Mighty Worm

C. elegans, a 959-celled Nobel magnet, helped explain cell suicide and launch genomics, and could now revolutionize drug development.

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