A gene test might help doctors predict if cancer is likely to spread. That could help determine treatment, write scientists in Cancer Research.

Their theory: Check the status of the SNCG gene. If the gene is active, that's a sign that cancer may spread regardless of cancer type.

The researchers studied tumor samples from 160 cancer patients in China. Tumors included cancers of the liver, esophagus, colon, lung, breast, and prostate, as well as gastric and cervical cancers. The scientists found links between the active SNCG gene and all of those cancers.

The researchers included Jingwen Liu, PhD, a molecular biologist at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif.

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Cancer Clue

When the SNCG gene is active, it makes a certain protein. Liu's team found abnormally high amounts of that protein in every type of cancer cell they tested and in cancers that had spread.

In contrast, the protein was rare in healthy cells, write the researchers. Normally, the protein is only abundant in brain tissues. But when found elsewhere in the body it appears to promote tumor growth, they note.

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Gene On or Off?

The big news, according to Liu's team, is that this is the first time that one gene has been linked to a wide range of cancer types and to cancer's spread.

They write that it's possible to test SNCG gene status in tumors removed from patients. That test could predict cancer's spread, which is valuable information in planning treatment.

Liu's team isn't blaming cancer's spread only on the SNCG gene. Other genes could also be involved. Why and how the SNCG gets turned on isn't known yet.

In a news release, Liu says she and her colleagues are currently working on a way to check several genes at the same time, instead of just the SNCG gene.

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By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Liu, H. Cancer Research, Sept. 1, 2005; vol 65. News release, Department of Veterans Affairs.