Scientists have identified a new strategy in the fight against cancer, having found a mechanism for switching off a chemical signal that is intimately linked to progression of the disease.
Dr Hilary Ashe and her team at the Universities of Manchester, Dundee and Harvard hope their work will, in the future, help develop a therapy to slow the onset of cancer, working at a molecular level instead of attacking the cells with harsh radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Their Wellcome Trust-funded study, published in Genes & Development, has worked out the mechanism which controls how long a protein with a key role in cancer remains in the nucleus where it carries out its important function.
Tumour suppressor proteins have essential roles in reducing the risk of cancers in different tissues. One of these tumour suppressors is a protein called Medea which acts in the nucleus of normal cells to regulate hundreds of genes necessary for proper cell development.
People predisposed to certain cancer types have greatly reduced amounts of Medea in the nucleus. As a result, the genes which Medea would regulate are not controlled properly leading to the development of cancers. Reduced Medea activity is associated with 90% of pancreatic cancers, 60% of gastric cancers and 30% of breast, prostate and cervical cancers.
Dr Ashe explained: “We have worked out the mechanism by which Medea is moved from the nucleus to the cytoplasm in normal cells. This will be important for cancer cells where there is only a tiny amount of Medea that is only in the nucleus for a short time. One way to fix that is to keep it in the nucleus longer. We now know what directs the protein out of the nucleus so if we stop that, it will compensate for the reduced amount of protein.
“By doing this in early stage cancerous cells, we will increase the chances that cells grow properly and thus greatly reduce the development of cancer.”