The mutants among us

Movies, computer games and TV series have taught us that mutants are scary looking, mostly evil and often deformed creatures, some of whom have an awesome special power, like the X-men. What we define as a mutant in biology is something much less obvious, with no special powers and certainly not evil. But it an be quite exciting none the less.

Mutants in biology are organisms that carry a mutation in their genes. This means they have a change in thier genes that makes their mutant gene different to the same gene that is carried by most other members of its species. So, if a human has a mutant gene, his ir her gene is different to the gene found in an average human. The changes in the gene can be completely invisible on the outside and more often than not, you won’t even be able to spot someone with a mutation when he or she stands right in front of you. And most mutations don’t actually do anything. However, some gene mutations are linked to diseases such as Alzheimers, Downs’ Syndrome and even a handful of cancers, such as breast cancer.

People often wonder why cancer develops more often in some families than in others. Typically cancer happens by chance and can happen to anyone, but in these families usually more than 3 people have had the same cancer. This could be because there is a mutant gene in that family. Every person in the family who has the mutant version of the gene may be at a higher risk for a specific type of cancer.

One of the genes that has been found to be linked to breast cancer is called Breast Cancer gene 1 (BRCA1). This gene is usually responsible for fixing broken bits of genetic material. If the gene is mutated, then it can no longer do its job, so in someone with a mutant gene the genetic material is not fixed properly. This does not necessarily mean that they will get breast cancer, but it means that there is a much higher chance than normal that they might get breast cancer at some point.

The fact that we can now find genes that are linked to cancer and can find the families that have mutant genes, means we can do something about it. We can warn the family that they may be at higher risk than everybody else. We can give them extra appointments with doctors and we can offer them screening so that if cancer develops it can be found as early as possible. Knowing about a genetic mutation in the family is a good thing. It will allow us to find and protect the people who are most at risk. And who knows, in the future we might be able to fix the mutant genes, preventing cancer altogether. But that’s for the researchers of tomorrow to explore.

You can find out all about the breast cancer gene by clicking here.

Here are just some of the ways in which you could get involved  in this exciting field of research by becoming…

  • geneticist or genetics researcher – looking into people’s genes and why they might be linked to diseases such as cancer
  • hospital lab technician – looking at blood samples from patients who fear they might have a genetic mutation and finding out whether they do or not
  • genetic counsellor or clinician – supporting and advising patients with genetic mutations and their families
  • cancer researcher – working as part of the front line research teams looking into developing cancer cures and prevention options
  • An oncologist – a doctor who specialises in taking care of people with cancer
  • children’s cancer nurse – looking after children of all ages who may be suffering from cancer
  • communications manager – informing the public of the latest research into cancer in a way that we can all understand
  • charity fundraiser – working for a non-governmental organisation that sponsors research into genetics and/or cancer

For a more detailed view on working as an oncologist, have a look at this video on ‘Life as an Oncologist’.