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Longevity Briefs: Understanding Cancer – Study Proteins, Not Genes?

Posted on 1 October 2021

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: In the fight against cancer, much research has been dedicated to picking through the genomes of cancer cells. It’s easy to understand why – it’s because of mutations in the genetic code that these cells lose the brakes on their replicative cycle, causing them to divide uncontrollably. Understanding these mutations can help scientists figure out ways to treat cancer patients. However, genetic information from cancer cells is messy – due to the loss of genetic quality control, cancer cells accumulate many, many mutations, and it’s not always clear which ones are actually fuelling the cancer.

What did the researchers do: In a series of papers published in the journal Science, a team of researchers outline the case for studying the ”protein-protein interaction maps” for different cancers as a less complicated and perhaps more meaningful way of finding new cancer therapies. Proteins are the end products of gene expression and are ultimately responsible for carrying out the function of a gene within the cell. The papers described the landscape of protein-protein interactions for breast cancer and for a type of head and neck cancer, and identified how these interactions differ between cancer cells and healthy cells.

Although genome sequencing has catalogued alterations in thousands of patient tumours, the overwhelming complexity of mutations points to a single driver in only a few tumour types. A clearer picture would emerge if mechanisms critical for tumour growth were better consolidated into specific pathways. Identifying and consolidating these pathways and identifying how combinations of pathways drive cancer will simplify our search for effective cancer therapies. Protein-protein interactions are critical because they extend far beyond gene lists to define the protein biochemistry of tumour pathways and druggable targets.

Ran Cheng and Peter Jackson of Stanford University’s School of Medicine, writing in this editorial.

Key takeaway(s) from this research: Though cancer is a genetic disease, proteins are the ultimate effectors of cancer-causing mutations and, for the moment, are the easier target for therapies. If we know that a group of proteins is driving a cancer, then perhaps we don’t really need to know what the underlying genetic mutations are, and can simply focus our efforts on targeting those proteins. There may hopefully come a time when gene therapies that directly block cancer-driving genes directly become a mainstream approach to cancer treatment, at which point a genetic understanding of cancer will be more important. However, many hurdles in gene therapy still need to be overcome, and reaching this point could still take decades.

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      Genetic information can be messy. Mapping proteins could offer a clearer view of what’s driving cancer:

      A protein network map of head and neck cancer reveals PIK3CA mutant drug sensitivity:

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