New electrical mechanism could help control cancer cell growth

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby


Researchers have discovered a new electrical mechanism that can control the molecular switches connected to growth of cancer cells.

The findings could lead to new treatments for some of the most lethal types of cancer including pancreatic, colon and lung, which are characterised by uncontrolled cell growth.

The molecular switches regulating human cell growth do a great job of replacing cells that die during the course of a lifetime. But when they misfire, life-threatening cancers can occur.

The research focused on a molecular switch called K-Ras. Mutated versions of K-Ras are found in a number of cancers and these mutations lock the K-Ras switch in the on position.

“When K-Ras is locked in the on position, it drives cell division, which leads to the production of a cancer,” said the study’s senior author John Hancock from The University of Texas Health Science Centre at Houston (UTHealth) in the US.

“We have identified a completely new molecular mechanism that further enhances the activity of K-Ras,” Hancock said.

The study focused on the tiny electrical charges that all cells carry.

“What we have shown is that the electrical potential (charge) that a cell carries is inversely proportional to the strength of a K-Ras signal,” Hancock said.

“Our results may finally account for a long-standing but unexplained observation that many cancer cells actively try to reduce their electrical charge,” first author of the study Yong Zhou, assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at UTHealth Medical School, said.

Initial work was done with human and animal cells and findings were subsequently confirmed in a fruit fly model.

The study was published in the journal Science.