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Tiny Proteins May Play a Key Role in Cancer Spread

Computer-generated image of three cancer cells.
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Phosphatases of regenerating liver (PRLs) are a family of enigmatic proteins involved in cell growth and metabolism present in various species. From humans to fruit flies, they play a unique role in the growth of cancerous tumours and the spread of cancer throughout the body. New research emerging from McGill University is contributing to what is known about PRLs, which could potentially become an important tool in the development of cancer-fighting treatments.  

Led by Kalle Gehring, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and founding director of the McGill Centre for Structural Biology, the researchers focused on unravelling the mystery around PRLs. “It's important for us to study PRLs because they are so important in cancer,” said Gehring, “In some cancers such as metastatic colorectal cancer, the proteins are overexpressed up to 300-fold.” 

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Published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Prof. Gehring and his colleagues (with data collected at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan) confirmed that not only PRLs exist in all kinds of single- and multi-cell animals, but that the role of PRLs in binding magnesium transporters is common among all studied species.  

This overexpression of PRLs makes cancer cells more metastatic and drives the spread to other organs. This data could help to further the understanding of how these proteins influence human disease. 

“What we learned is that they all bind the magnesium transporters in the same way,” says Gehring. “We're excited because it helps us understand this pathway, and that will reveal new targets for drugs to prevent cancer progression.”

Reference: Fakih R, Goldstein RH, Kozlov G, Gehring K. Burst kinetics and CNNM binding are evolutionarily conserved properties of phosphatases of regenerating liver. JBC. 2023;299(4). doi: 10.1016/j.jbc.2023.103055

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