A newly discovered cell organelle may prevent cancer formation by ensuring that the genetic material is sorted properly when cells divide.

When cells divide by mitosis, the chromosomes split down the middle to ensure each new cell has a full copy of the genetic material. Protein tubes called microtubules are responsible for pulling the separate chromosome halves to opposite sides of the cell. The organelles main function is to repair the microtubules. However, in cancer this process is defective, meaning that the new cells do not have the correct genetic material and become more aggressive and proliferative.

Dysfunction of the new organelle has been linked to a subset of breast cancer cells that make lots of mistakes when segregating chromosomes. These findings have been applied to a new test that measures the amount of mis-segregation of chromosomes in tumour cells. Patients with these tumours would be more receptive to the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel, and patients who are not expected to respond could be spared the damaging side-effects.

Other that its link with cancer, the new organelle could also aid understanding into how many reactions happen in the cell. The organelle is ephemeral, only appearing during cell division and breaking down after its completion, which explains why it has only been recently discovered. It appears to have a gel like consistency, no membrane and is assembled similarly to a droplet of oil in water.  The organelle compartmentalizes biochemical reactions within the cell, and the study authors state that many reactions would not be possible outside these organelles.

The study author Todd Stukenberg stated that the discovery may be a new “paradigm” as “Cells are using these non-membranous organelles to regulate much of their work.”