Mitochondria pathway can spur tumor progression

Scientists discover new protein pathway that controls tumor growth in several types of cancer.
By Amy Wallace  |  Dec. 19, 2016 at 9:17 AM
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PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- Scientists at The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia have uncovered a new protein pathway found in multiple types of cancer, which shows that mitochondria may play an important role in tumor progression.

Mitochondria, which are responsible for the conversion of oxygen and nutrients into energy for cellular processes, was previously thought to not influence the progression of cancer tumors because typical tumor cells use a different system of energy production to allow for the increased energy levels and low oxygen levels found in malignant tumors. This different system is called the Warburg effect.

However, researchers discovered that mitochondria in tumor cells reposition themselves close to the cell membrane to produce energy for movement, contributing to the spread of cancer, or metastasis.

A network of proteins, including SNPH, which are responsible for mitochondria movement in neurons, are reprogrammed to do the same thing in tumor cells.

"The scientific community has been missing a fundamental aspect of cancer cell metabolism because we have overlooked the role of mitochondria and oxidative metabolic processes in cancer, " Dr. Dario C. Altieri, president and CEO of The Wistar Institute, director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, the Robert & Penny Fox Distinguished Professor and lead author of the study said in a press release.

"Our findings, along with those of others from the past few years, pave the way to a new research direction in the field, alluding to the need to further investigate the role of mitochondria in tumor metabolism."

Through a genome-wide screening approach, Altieri and his team found that SNPH inhibits cell invasion by reducing cell movement in prostate cancer cells. But while SNPH expression is inhibited, the mitochondria move from their typical position around the cell nucleus to the cell membrane. Reduced levels of SNPH coincide with cancer progression and unfavorable outcomes across types of cancer.

"We were able to establish a correlation between this protein pathway and disease progression and survival in several cancer types besides prostate cancer," M. Cecilia Caino, Ph. D., a postdoctoral researcher in The Altieri Laboratory and author of the paper said in a press release.

"Our observations have strong clinical implications, as some of the proteins in this network are druggable, opening new potential therapeutic opportunities for metastatic disease."

Altieri's study was published in Nature Communications.

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