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A blocked ‘nose’ may stop cancer cell growth

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by Cancer Research UK | News

26 May 2010

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Cancer Research UK-funded scientists have revealed that a set of proteins act as the cell’s ‘nose’ to ‘sniff out’ molecules which trigger cell growth, according to research published in Oncogene today.

Blocking these proteins stops cancer cell growth but seems to have less of an effect on healthy cells, as they may rely less on this family of proteins.

Cancer Research UK scientists at the University of Oxford investigated the role in human cancer cells of a group of proteins – called Proton-Assisted Amino Acid Transporters (PATs). PATs carry amino acids through cell walls.

Cell growth is completely dependent on messenger molecules ‘sniffing out’ the presence of amino acids – the building blocks of proteins that carry out activities essential to life.

The team discovered that the PAT proteins are a key part of the amino acid sensing system inside the cell** which controls an essential growth regulator protein called mTOR. If mTOR is switched off cancer cells cannot grow.

Blocking the activity of PAT proteins halts cancer cell growth, but appears to have much less of an effect on the growth of other cells, suggesting PATs could provide potent targets for drug development to stop tumour growth.

Lead author Dr Deborah Goberdhan, Cancer Research UK-funded scientist at the University of Oxford, said: “By blocking the activity of the cell’s nose, we could stop cancer cells growing. Excitingly, we’ve started to see that blocking this activity doesn’t stop healthy cells going about their business as normal, so it could provide a potential target for new drugs.”

Dr Phil L’Huillier, Cancer Research Technology’s director of business management said: “Cancer Research Technology, the commercial arm of Cancer Research UK works with our huge portfolio of world class scientists to matchmake exciting research from our funded laboratories such as this, with expertise from global industry drug discovery teams. We are investigating partnership opportunities with pharmaceutical companies to explore ways to block the PATs and potentially develop new cancer treatments.”

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK said: “This interesting research reveals for the first time a whole new set of proteins that are critical for cancer cell growth. Now we understand the role of these molecules better, we can start investigating new treatments to stop tumour growth.”


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*S Heublein et al. Proton-assisted amino acid transporters are conserved regulators of proliferation and amino acid-dependent mTORC1 activation. Oncogene.