Calgary

University of Calgary researchers discover possible way to slow spread of cancer

A new discovery made by researchers at the University of Calgary could one day help to slow or even stop the process that sees cancer spread.

Nearly 90% of cancer deaths are the result of cancer cells metastasizing, says researcher

Researchers at the University of Calgary have discovered a molecular switch in a protein linked to how cancer cells spread. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

A new discovery made by researchers at the University of Calgary could one day help to slow or even stop the process that sees cancer spread.

Researchers in the Faculty of Science identified a molecular switch in L-plastin, a calcium binding protein known to play a significant role in the metastasis, or spread, of cancer cells.

"This was, we think, a major step forward in our understanding of how this one particular protein works," said Hans Vogel, a professor of biochemistry at the U of C.

"This protein is very important … because cancer cells originally develop as a large tumour and all the cells are clustered together. Then at some point they don't feel comfortable anymore and some of them break loose and they start to migrate through our bodies and try to find another spot, and that's where they embed again and start to make new tumours."

Vogel said nearly 90 per cent of cancer deaths are the result of cancer cells metastasizing.

Hans Vogel, a professor of biochemistry at the U of C, says the discovery "could have a very large impact on the future.” (Andrew Brown/CBC)

The findings were published Wednesday in Scientific Reports.

"It's very difficult to actually have some idea about the spreading of the tumour because the normal treatments for the cancer are that you try to remove the original tumour and in the meantime, this spreading process can go on," said Vogel.

The discovery was made by analyzing 3D protein structures. The protein, known as plastin, "helps the cancer cells to make tentacles they can use to claw around and migrate through your body," said Vogel.

"What we have found is we can switch this protein on and off," he said.

"This protein has a natural switch in it, we found what that switch was and then we determined what it looked like in three dimensional space. Now that we know how it worked, we could also design experiments where we could interfere with the process."

L-plastin is a calcium binding protein known to play a significant role in the metastasis, or spread, of cancer cells. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

The finding is a big step forward, but there's still a lot of work to be done, said Vogel.

"It is still important to remove the original tumour, it's still important to use radiation to get rid of the original tumour, but I think this is something you can do on top of that," he said.

"This could have a very large impact on the future."

With files from Andrew Brown

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