CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers are optimistic for future cancer therapies after a breakthrough in cancer research at Oregon State University.
“When you walk outside – 15 seconds of UV exposure – you start to develop mutations in your genes,” said Mark Leid, the Associate Dean for Research in the OSU College of Pharmacy. “Fifteen seconds. We don’t see the sun all that much, but when we do, we run outside and don’t slather on the sunscreen. So rates of melanoma, which is directly related to UV exposure, are high in Oregon.”
Leid says those mutations activate a special protein called p53, which helps repair DNA damage. But if there is too much damage, Leid says the p53 pathways can cause cancer.
“It’s better for the cell to kill itself than to replicate and make another mutant cell and another mutant cell and another mutant cell because that’s cancer,” Leid said. “When you have unregulated cell growth, it’s cancer.”
Leid says p53 is one of the most important tumor suppressing genes. But if ultraviolet exposure mutates it, it can’t do its job properly.
“Anything that enhances p53’s ability to work would be useful as a cancer chemotherapy for example,” he said.
Recently, Leid and his colleagues discovered a new protein that enhances the p53 gene that they say could help prevent skin cancer. Researchers removed the protein, called Grasp, from mice in a laboratory on campus to see what the impact would be.
“We found that the mouse lacking this gene was surprisingly normal,” Leid said. “Until we shined UV light on him.”
Leid says Grasp creates a halo around the p53 gene, which protects it in the nucleus, where it can repair DNA or kill the cell to prevent further mutations.
And without Grasp, the p53 gene is more vulnerable.
“The mouse is more likely to develop skin cancer than a normal mouse,” Leid said. “So we think we’ve identified a pathway in the development of skin cancer hopefully in humans. And we’re trying to figure out how that works right now.”
Leid says ultimately, the group would like to figure out a way to create a drug that could enhance the cell’s ability to repair UV damage.
“Our hope is that we can enhance the activity of this protein (Grasp), which is enhancing p53 to respond to cellular insults like UV light,” Leid said.
Though researchers are still in the early stages of their work, they say the discovery is promising.
“When you make a finding that has some obvious implications for human health, it’s very rewarding,” Leid said. “And I think every one of the people working on the project felt that way.”