PULLMAN, Wash. – Water molecules can be nature’s navigational system for a family of molecules needing to findspecific locations in some of our genes, a Washington State University researcher has discovered.

Reporting in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, WSU’s Dr. Gregory Poon has found it is water that gives the family of molecules he has been studying the ability to target a precise location in the on-off switch regions of genes.

The finding may contribute to new and more efficient medications that target cancer and the immune system, said Poon, a researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“In drug discovery one is always looking for ways to find out how to target a specific response and spare the other functions in a cell that do not contribute to disease,” Poon said.

Poon’s laboratory has been studying a family of molecules – called ETS transcription factors – that control the development and functions of certain white blood cells. The molecules are needed for normal functions, but if they develop mutations, they can lead to cancer, Poon said. Research has shown these molecules are involved in several human and animal leukemias, and emerging research also suggests that they also play a role in infectious diseases such as anthrax, Poon said.

The scientist marveled at the body’s use of water in this way.

“Cells are remarkably efficient in terms of the tools they use to switch genes on and off,” Poon said. “There are far more genes than types of tools at the cell’s disposal, which means that these cells must evolve diverse and clever ways to perform highly specialized functions at specific locations in the genome.”

He describes the navigational ability of water imparts to these molecules this way: “It’s like being able to identify one particular house on a long, winding street by knowing its size and distance from the curb.”

This research is one of the continuing projects in Poon’s lab. Another major research focus is the targeted delivery of protein toxins to kill cancer cells.

Poon joined the WSU faculty four years ago after completing a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ontario Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Genomics and Proteomics.