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The best palindromes – words and sentences that are the same spelled backward and forward – are both clever and silly. Here are some of the best:

Kay, a red nude, peeped under a yak

Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?

Doc Note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod

Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog

But some palindromes aren’t funny. Some palindromes can cause cancer.

David Butler, an assistant professor of biology at MSU-B, is studying the genetic change that happens in some cancer cells. Research has shown palindromic patterns in the DNA of some cancer cells and Butler wants to understand how such palindromic forms arise in cancer cells.

“Each strand of DNA is composed of letters marked a, c, t, and g,” Butler said. He is looking for times when a DNA break occurs near a very small DNA palindrome. Five percent of the time this creates a large palindrome, and large palindromes occur in about 20 percent of human cancer cells

“What we do is we construct bits of DNA called plasmids in a test tube,” Butler said. “Plasmids are small, circular DNA molecules that represent the pre-genetic change state of DNA.”

Butler uses a yeast cell to mimic a noncancer cell.

“We put the DNA in the yeast cell and we can target a double-strand break to the plasmid, and that triggers the whole process. When we induce a double-strand break, the plasmid becomes a large palindrome. It’s analogous to the genetic change a cell sees when it becomes a cancer cell.

“We’re using this to determine what level of genes affect this process. The overall goal is to understand each of these genetic changes. Each one represents a potential point of therapeutic intervention. It puts us on the way to developing an anti-cancer drug.”

Butler said DNA is breaking all the time. “We break DNA strands in the normal course of replicating DNA,” he said. DNA also breaks when cells are exposed to light energy radiation, free radicals, certain chemicals and when the DNA encounters an error in its formation.

“We’re always experiencing damage and always fixing it,” Butler said. “It’s normal. It’s when the system gets overwhelmed and can’t handle the load is when cancer forms.”

Butler is looking for the genes that affect this process – genes known to play some kind of role in palindrome formation

“We’ve found a couple of genes that affect the process. If they’re not functioning naturally, they stop the palindromic process from happening, so they are a potential target for treatment. It’s the next step in the process.”

“It takes five minutes to describe but it has taken a few years to get this far.”

Butler earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in biochemistry and performed his post-doctoral research at the Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. He worked there until he came to MSU-B in 1996.

“All the research I’m doing now really started in Seattle,” he said.

He has received a $23,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 1997, an $84,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health last year, and several internal grants from the Montana University System. When classes resume in August, he will have four undergraduates working with him on the research.

John Fitzgerald can be reached at 657-1392 or at