Discovery could lead to more targeted drugs to stop cancer spread

23 December 2015

Scientists have shed more light on a vital cluster of proteins that helps cells - including cancer cells - to move around the body.

The discovery, by scientists at The Francis Crick Institute, funded by Cancer Research UK, could potentially lead to more targeted drugs to help stop cancer in its tracks.

Researchers focused on a key cluster of proteins - called the Arp2/3 complex - that's found in all cells and plays an essential role in how they move and work.  It helps build a microscopic mesh within cells that allows them to move and gives them their shape.

It was thought that this complex - made up of seven smaller proteins stuck together - was unique. But the scientists unravelled more about how the smaller proteins work and have discovered that there are actually eight versions of the complex, each with different properties.

Future research could now focus on whether different versions of the complex are made by the body as cancer develops or progresses, or if certain complex types are more common in specific types of the disease.

Dr Michael Way of the Crick (currently based at Lincoln's Inn Fields), said: "It's important that cells are healthy and can move around the body - and Arp2/3 plays a vital role in making this happen. But this mobility can backfire when cancer cells spread to form new tumours.

"Our research shows that this essential group of proteins is more complex than we thought, with different types working in slightly different ways.  If it's discovered through future research that particular types are specifically involved in cancer,  targeted drugs could potentially be developed that block them and leave healthy cells alone."

Nell Barrie, senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "Understanding how cells change shape and move is crucial for tackling cancer and stopping it from spreading.  And if cancer cells use different versions of these proteins then future drugs may be able to target this hidden weakness."

The paper, Isoform diversity in the Arp2/3 complex determines actin filament dynamics, is published in Nature Cell Biology.

  • Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute have shed light on a vital cluster of proteins helps cells - including cancer cells - to move around the body. The findings could be harnessed to develop drugs to stop cancer spreading.
  • It was previously thought that there was just one unique version of the group of proteins - but in this study, the authors uncovered eight slightly different versions, meaning it's much more complex that previously thought.
  • Understanding how cells move is crucial for learning how to stop cancer cells from spreading.