The discovery may pave the way for treatments to prevent colon cancer in people with mutations in the APC gene, which is responsible for 85 percent of cases.
The gene in question -- known technically as the adenomatous polyposis coli tumor suppressor gene -- controls the conversion of vitamin A to retinoic acid, a process that if impaired can lead to colon cancer, according to researchers at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Scientists had not understood why the APC mutations led to colon cancer, but the HCI researchers' work in zebrafish has helped to answer that question. When the function of the APC gene was blocked in zebrafish, their intestines did not develop properly, but when retinoic acid was added, the intestines developed normally.
"With this new understanding, it may be possible to bypass a non-functioning APC gene by introducing retinoids as a form of chemoprevention," said David Jones, leader of the study and head of HCI's colon cancer program.
The research appeared Thursday in the online edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.