29 September 2015

Cell 'Switch' Discovered That Could Shed Light on Cancer

Biologists, physicists and computational scientists have come together to solve the atomic structure of a protein which controls how cells make 'decisions' - giving clues for the design of new cancer drugs.

The protein, IKK-gamma, lies at the heart of a cobweb-like network of proteins which talk to one another inside the cell, determining how the cell will respond to its environment and to signals sent by other cells. The team’s findings suggest that tiny movements effectively switch the protein on and off, driving changes in cell behaviour.

Through a large interdisciplinary collaboration part-funded by the MRC, the London and Cambridge researchers were able to get the first ever complete view of the protein's shape, revealing how its individual parts come together to do their job.

They used a magnetic resonance technique whereby molecular sized magnets were attached to the protein as labels and the distances between them measured. Sophisticated computer modelling then allowed them to work out the structure by a process of elimination.

UCL's Professor Chris Kay said: “The study shows how powerful interdisciplinary work can be. None of the approaches on their own could give us this much insight into how IKK-gamma works.”

Dr Ben Hall, from the MRC Cancer Cell Unit at the University of Cambridge added: “The detailed picture we have now could be helpful to develop drugs in future to turn the protein off or on. Drugs fit into nooks and crannies in the protein surface, and this work has allowed us to see them."

Journal of Biological Chemistry, 290 (27) pp 16539-49