News at Medicine - May 2018 - New research unlocks insights into cancer cells

New research unlocks insights into cancer cells
May 9, 2018
A team from the Division of BioMedical Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine offer new research into mechanisms of cancer cell division.
How are cancer cells created?
The human body contains tens of trillions of cells, and to make up and maintain this almost inconceivable number, cells have the ability to replicate themselves through a tightly controlled process called mitosis, in which one cell divides into two ‘daughter’ cells.
Cancer cells arise when healthy cells lose their control over mitosis. As more and more unneeded cells are created, it sometimes causes abnormal tissue masses called tumors. When a tumor is malignant (or cancerous) it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. The challenge researchers face is to find ways to reinstate cell division control or stop the process altogether.
Nearly one in two Canadians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime according to a new report, Canadian Cancer Statistics 2017, released by the Canadian Cancer Society in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada.
However, numerous advances have been made in cancer research to fight the disease, including studying the intricacies of cancer cells, which is what Dr. Kenneth Kao, a professor of oncology, and his research team at Memorial University have spent the last 12 years doing.   
Cellular breakthroughs
In a recently published paper, Dr. Kao and his lab introduce new findings on a very important cancer-causing protein called Myc, a master regulator that orchestrates production of the parts needed for mitosis.
Dr. Phillip Andrews, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab, identified the role of a critical protein, called Pygopus, which acts as a key, unlocking the ability of Myc to make the machinery that evenly divides the cell contents between the two daughter cells. The researchers discovered that when the key was removed, cancer cells died because they could not successfully complete mitosis.
“This breakthrough is a fundamental advance in our understanding of biological growth,” said Dr. Kao. “Because it is so fundamental, it not only has powerful implication for the development of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer, but if harnessed appropriately, may be used to grow normal cells to repair tissue damaged by injury or disease.”
With continued funding, Dr. Kao hopes the next phase of research will focus on determining the characteristics of the Myc protein, how it interacts with Pygopus, and testing ways to prevent both proteins from communicating with each other.
“These findings are a major step forward for both Dr. Kao’s research, as well as other cancer research being done around the world,” said Dr. Andrews. “However, there is still a lot of work to be done.”
This research initiative was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Motorcycle Ride for Dad ­- Avalon Chapter.
To read the full paper published in Cell Report, click here.