Israeli researchers believe that a biological ‘switch’ found in plants may hold the secret for a new cancer treatment for humans.



Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90.
Scientists believe a process in plants to switch on cell growth, could be used in humans to switch off tumor growth.

An Israeli researcher has identified a common fat molecule that functions like a “switch,” in that it can “switch on” cell growth in plants. Now he’s suggesting that the same mechanism can “turn off” the process that leads to the growth of cancerous tumors.

Although plants and animals are very different organisms, they share a surprising number of biological mechanisms says Prof. Shaul Yalovsky of Tel Aviv University (TAU).

In his research, Yalovsky, of the university’s Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants Department, found that the fat molecule, or ‘switch’ in plants modulates a group of proteins called ROPs that are responsible for cell growth.

Proteins very similar to ROPs also exist in humans. In humans they are involved in wound healing, development of nerve cells in the brain, and also provide the chemical signals that tell cancer when to metastasize.

Manipulating proteins to halt tumors

In a laboratory setting, Yalovsky and his research collaborators Prof. Yoav Henis and Dr. Joel Hirsch of TAU’s Departments of Neurobiology and Biochemistry, were able to use this switch mechanism in plants to reshape plant cells, grow new tissues, and respond to bacterial and viral invaders.

ROPs bind to a small molecule called GTP, which then breaks up into another molecule called GDP. It’s a known concept in the plant sciences community that when bound to GDP, ROPs become inactive. With his team, Yalovsky created a second type of mutant molecule that prevents ROP proteins from binding to the GTP molecule, creating an inhibitory effect.

With this knowledge, the researchers believe they are now one-step away from turning off this ROP-like switch in humans – a process which could prevent tumor growth.

“We’ve stumbled upon an ancient mechanism that regulates the function of these proteins, proteins which are found in both plants and humans,” says Yalovsky, explaining that this mechanism already regulates the immune response to pathogen invaders in the human body.

A new line of defense

“When these proteins are turned ‘on,’ they can initiate processes like cell division and growth,” says Yalovsky. “Through our genetic engineering, these proteins could be manipulated in humans to speed up tissue healing, or turned off to slow or stop the growth of tumors.”

According to the scientists, their research could also be applied in agriculture to reduce the need for chemical pesticides. The mutant molecule they devised induces plants to respond as though they are being attacked by pathogens. They then create a biological defense that protects them from infection.

In their research paper, published in the scientific journal, Current Biology, the TAU scientists describe how these mutations and mechanisms work, providing a new mechanism to control metastasis in cancer, or stop the deterioration of certain nerve cells in the brain. In a broader sense, the researchers have created a long-desired platform to test the function of proteins.

“It is common for plant and animal geneticists to identify proteins, but remain unaware of their functions. We now have a mechanism to test our hypotheses,” concludes Yalovsky.

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