UNT researchers collaborate on cancer breakthrough

Monday, September 19, 2016 - 20:55

DENTON, Texas (UNT) -- A team of researchers working in two countries and several universities, including the University of North Texas, has made a major discovery that could help fight some deadly forms of cancer.

In 2013, the team announced that it had connected a single protein that contain an iron-sulfur center, to some of the most lethal types of breast cancers. Since then, that protein has been connected to at least four other types of cancer. Now the researchers say their lab results show they've found a way to suppress that protein and in turn stop tumor growth.

"People who have cancers with high levels of this protein have worse odds of survival," said Rachel Nechushtai, a professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an adjunct professor at UNT. "We worked to manipulate that protein in the lab and found that by making the levels of this protein higher in the cells, the tumors became very aggressive, and by lowering it, they became less aggressive."

The team then created a mutated form of the protein and found that when it was present in cancer cells, the protein almost completely stops any further development of tumors. They've also discovered that a drug already approved for the treatment of diabetes, Pioglitazone, can mimic this same mutation, recreating what they have done in the lab.

"Now, we can take women who have this cancer and try to treat them with the drug that is already on the market," said Ron Mittler, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the BioDiscovery Institute at UNT.

The next step in this research is to do clinical trials in Israel. The researchers also hope to see a drug designed using this new knowledge that will be used exclusively for fighting cancers involving this protein, with few side effects. Plus, they say they still have more research to do.

"We're still missing the explanation of how it works," said Mittler. "We have a theory, but we haven't 100 percent proven it. Now that doesn't mean we can't design drugs using this information. It just means we have more to study while we test and create treatments."

The research appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' Online Early Edition. It is co-authored by Merav Darash-Yahana, Yair Pozniak, Mingyang Lu, Yang-Sung Sohn, Ola Karmi, Sagi Tamir, Fang Bai, Luhua Song, Patricia Jennings, Eli Pikarsky, Tamar Geiger, Jose' Onuchic, Ron Mittler and Rachel Nechushtai. The work involved the University of North Texas, Rice University, the University of California, San Diego, Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was supported by the Israel Science Foundation, the UNT College of Arts and Sciences, the BioDiscovery Institute, the Israel Cancer Research Fund, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.