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Scientists turn cancerous cells back to normal

When regulation of two proteins was returned to normal, tumor growth was halted in lab experiments.

By
Stephen Feller
Dr. Panos Anastasiadis, left, and Dr. Antonis Kourtidis discovered the flaw in a long-held theory of cell proteins involved in the growth of tumors, and used to potentially find a method of halting tumor growth. Photo by Mayo Clinic
Dr. Panos Anastasiadis, left, and Dr. Antonis Kourtidis discovered the flaw in a long-held theory of cell proteins involved in the growth of tumors, and used to potentially find a method of halting tumor growth. Photo by Mayo Clinic

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have found a way to turn cancer cells back into normal cells by restoring the balance of key molecules that control certain cellular functions, according to a new study.

Lab experiments showed the method to successfully reverse the out of control growth of cells that turns them cancerous, though researchers said there is no way to know how successful the tactic would be in humans.

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"The study brings together two so-far unrelated research fields -- cell-to-cell adhesion and miRNA biology --- to resolve a longstanding problem about the role of adhesion proteins in cell behavior that was baffling scientists," Dr. Antonis Kourtidis, a research associate at the Mayo Clinic, said in a press release. "Most significantly, it uncovers a new strategy for cancer therapy."

Researchers have long thought that two adhesion proteins essential to the formation of epithelial tissues, E-cadherin and p120 catenin, also suppressed the growth of tumors. This turned out to not be true, they said, because both proteins are present in and required for tumor growth.

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Understanding that the proteins play both good and bad roles, the researchers thought they could turn them back from the dark side. They discovered that another protein called PLEKHA7 maintains the normal state and growth of cells using micro RNAs, or miRNA. When levels of PLEKHA7 drop, the miRNAs are misregulated and cadherin and p120 catenin turn from good to bad.

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Lab experiments showed, the researchers reported in the study, that increasing miRNA in cancer cells to normal levels turned the proteins back to good and halted cancer growth.

"By administering the affected miRNAs in cancer cells to restore their normal levels, we should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function," said Dr. Panos Anastasiadis, director of the department of cancer biology at Mayo's Jacksonville campus. "Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising."

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The study is published in Nature: Cell Biology.

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