Is THOR the answer to curing cancer?

Marvel superheroes and their superpowers have brought me a lot of joy over the past few years. Not only am I often queuing for cinema tickets on the day of release to see the next installment in the Marvel Universe, but Marvel superheroes have often helped me in my missions to bring my science research to the masses too!

Some of the contents of my science communication prop box featuring two of my favourite superheroes Deadpool and Wolverine

I study stem cells and how I can keep them as those powerful cells that can become any cell type in your body, in the hope that one day we can harness their power to help heal ourselves better. It is that superpower of complete regeneration of limbs and wounds that Deadpool and Wolverine possess that helps me to explain my research. Deadpool even goes a step further and helps me to explain how his superpowers were unlocked with low oxygen – which is exactly what happens with my stem cells too. Cool right?

But it turns out that another Marvel superhero has entered the science ranks and may even have special powers when it comes to cancer. As you have probably guessed by now I’m talking about the Norse God; Thor!

Okay – so not exactly Thor! Unfortunately every cancer patient is NOT going to get a visit from the wonderful Chris Hemsworth and be cured with Thor’s healing hammer. Instead I am talking about a gene called THOR newly discovered by researchers at the University of Michigan when they were investigating previously unexplored regions of the human genome.

THOR a.k.a Testis-associated Highly-conserved Oncogenic long non-coding RNA was found to be conserved throughout evolution and across species – which means it’s stuck around for a long time unchanged. Which is quite unusual for this type of RNA. If a gene in our DNA is conserved it’s likely that is has some kind of biological importance.

What normally happens in our cells is that our DNA gets converted into a message called RNA, and it is that message that allows our cells to make proteins from the information in our DNA. Think of it like a To Do list that your boss has given you. Your boss’ thoughts are the DNA that hold all the information. They write you a list of tasks to do. This is your RNA or your message so you know what you need to do in work this week. Finally, you doing the tasks is converting that message into protein.

But there are many other types of RNA in our cells that don’t help us to make proteins. RNAs such as the long non-coding RNA like THOR! Instead these RNAs usually tweak the expression of some of our genes and whether they are switched on or not. THOR is different though. It has a biological function and plays a role in cancer development. The researchers found that when you removed this gene it stopped the growth of tumours! It’s a super exciting and early example of how exploring this portion of the genome could lead to a new way of attacking cancer!

A conceptual image of THOR’s hammer. Photo credit: Ella Maru Studio, INC.

THOR was only found to be expressed highly in testes cells with little to no expression in other cell types, so it doesn’t look like THOR will cure all cancers, but it might be the first steps towards helping testicular cancer, and lung and skin cancers that these scientists studied! But there are also thousands of other long non-coding RNAs that have been identified that could be studied in the future and maybe offer hope and help in the fight against other cancer types.

So, it looks like if we can defeat THOR then maybe we can bring the hammer down on cancer! And perhaps all this so-called ‘junk DNA’ in our genome isn’t junk after all!



Science love.


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