New research published today sheds light on an old scientific puzzle: Why is cancer so rare in people with Down Syndrome? It turns out that a gene on chromosome 21, which Down syndrome patients have an extra copy of, may help to suppress tumors by blocking the development of blood vessels they need to grow. (The nitty gritty appears online in Nature .)
The finding builds on work by the venerable cancer researcher (and one of my scientific heroes), Judah Folkman , who died in 2008. It was Folkman who pioneered the idea of treating cancer by suppressing the growth of blood vessels that tumors need to develop. For years, Folkman was a lonely advocate of this approach. And early efforts to commercialize it in the U.S. largely fizzled. But the strategy of choking cancer’s blood supply hit it big in 2004 when the biotech company Genentech introduced its (wildly expensive) blockbuster Avastin . Other drugs that work on similar principles are now available or in the pipeline. Folkman also argued that a related mechanism might explain why people with Down Syndrome are less likely to get cancer. Today’s finding, by a member of his lab at Children’s Hospital Boston, validates that view and serves as a posthumous tribute to his career. As for breakthroughs in cutting off cancer’s blood supply: Expect more to come.