Recent Discovery May Lead to New Cancer Treatments

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A new wave of cancer treatments may soon be in development after the recent discovery by UC Berkeley-led researchers that physical forces can neutralize cancerous clusters.

In a study published Friday in the academic journal Science, researchers explained that the application of metal barriers underneath sample cells broke up cancer clusters formed from chemical bonds between cells. The discovery could lead to future individualized cancer treatments that would utilize genetics to diagnose and treat cancer.

The researchers investigated a protein located on the surface of a cell membrane that attracts other cells to form clusters, said graduate student Pradeep Nair, a co-author of the study. By placing the clusters on metal lines mere nanometers in length, researchers were able to prevent the clusters from forming, he said.

Emory University professor of chemistry Khalid Salaita, another co-author of the study, said the metal lines force the bonds to return to a normal state.

The receptor of the chemical bond studied is found to be over-expressed in 40 percent of all breast cancer patients and is linked to various human cancers, according to Salaita.

"By identifying specific molecular processes that may be malfunctioning in cancer, we are able to pinpoint possible targets for therapeutic treatment," said Jay Groves, a UC Berkeley associate professor of chemistry who co-wrote the study, in an e-mail. "The gene expression fingerprint we have identified may also be useful to help match specific drugs to individual patients who are likely to respond."

Salaita said conventional thought held that cells solely interact with their surroundings through chemical signals. Consequently, past cancer treatments have focused on drugs and therapies that distort or block these interactions.

But he said the metal lines used in the study are similar to the physical and mechanical properties of tissue and other cell structures. The sensitivity of the chemical bonds to physical forces could result in innovative techniques in cancer treatment, he said.

"(The way that mechanisms are arranged in the cell) has generally been ignored by biochemists-largely due to lack of tools to study and control it," Groves said in the e-mail. "We have now developed several experimental strategies that enable us to explore this aspect of the chemistry of life."

Treatment and prognosis for cancer is currently determined through a broad process based on factors such as family history, tumor size and location, according to Nair.

He said the new research may allow personalized cancer therapy in which treatment is tailored to the patient, rather than generalized from broad information.

"It is a fundamentally new way of thinking about chemistry in living systems," Groves said in the e-mail.

But Salaita said that generalizing this treatment to different types of cancers requires further research.

"The big question we are asking is if this is general or if it is unique to this one receptor," he said.

Valerie Weaver, adjunct associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an e-mail the research is an interesting example of how physical forces could be used to combat cancer, but she wants to take the research further.

"The connection with cancer is an association, but is compelling and now needs to be further investigated," she said.


Contact Michael Pearlson at [email protected]

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