Cancer can be compared to a complicated software program that has gone out of control, where in place of the code for normal cells, a hacked code for making abnormal cells gets run. But a new study from Mayo Clinic researchers reveals a way to potentially reprogram cancer cells back to normalcy.

Senior investigator Panos Anastasiadis, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cancer Biology on Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, says the finding is an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer.

The code was unraveled by the discovery that adhesion proteins, the glue that keeps cells together, interact with the microprocessor, a key player in the production of molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs).

The miRNAs orchestrate whole cellular programs by simultaneously regulating expression of a group of genes. The investigators found that when normal cells come in contact with each other, a specific subset of miRNAs suppresses genes that promote cell growth.

Aberrant Cell Growth Reversed

However, when adhesion is disrupted in cancer cells, these miRNAs are misregulated and cells grow out of control. The investigators showed, in laboratory experiments, that restoring the normal miRNA levels in cancer cells can reverse that aberrant cell growth.

Lead author Antonis Kourtidis, Ph.D., a research associate in Dr. Anastasiadis’ lab, said:

“The study brings together two so-far unrelated research fields—cell-to-cell adhesion and miRNA biology—to resolve a long-standing problem about the role of adhesion proteins in cell behavior that was baffling scientists. Most significantly, it uncovers a new strategy for cancer therapy."

Dr. Anastasiadis adds:

“By administering the affected miRNAs in cancer cells to restore their normal levels, we should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function. Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising."

Antonis Kourtidis, Siu P. Ngok, Pamela Pulimeno, Ryan W. Feathers, Lomeli R. Carpio, Tiffany R. Baker, Jennifer M. Carr, Irene K. Yan, Sahra Borges, Edith A. Perez, Peter Storz, John A. Copland, Tushar Patel, E. Aubrey Thompson, Sandra Citi & Panos Z. Anastasiadis Distinct E-cadherin-based complexes regulate cell behaviour through miRNA processing or Src and p120 catenin activity Nature Cell Biology (2015) doi:10.1038/ncb3227

Illustration: Electron microscopic image of a single human lymphocyte. Credit: Dr. Triche National Cancer Institute

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