Tiny proteins found across the animal kingdom play a key role in cancer spread

Researchers from McGill University have made an exciting discovery about specific proteins involved in the spread of certain cancers.

By Erin Matthews
Video: Tiny proteins found across the animal kingdom play a key role in cancer spread

Dr. Kalle Gehring, professor of biochemistry and founding director of the McGill Centre for Structural Biology, and his team have focused on unravelling the mystery around phosphatases of regenerating liver (PRLs). These proteins are found in all kinds of animals and insects — from humans to fruit flies – and play a unique role in the growth of cancerous tumours and the spread of cancer throughout the body.

“It's important for us to study PRLs because they are so important in cancer,” said Gehring, “In some cancers, like metastatic colorectal cancer, the proteins are overexpressed up to 300-fold.”

This overexpression of PRLs makes cancer cells more metastatic and drives the spread to other organs.

In his most recent paper, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Gehring and his colleagues confirmed that PRLs exist in all kinds of single- and multi-cell animals. Data collected at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan confirmed the role of PRLs in binding magnesium transporters, helping to further the understanding of how these proteins influence human disease.

“What we learned is that they all bind the magnesium transporters in the same way,” said Gehring. “We're excited because it helps us understand this pathway, and that will reveal new targets for drugs to prevent cancer progression.”

The CLS is crucial to structural biology, allowing biochemists like Gehring to visualize proteins and their interactions.

“We've been working with the CLS for many years and always had very positive experiences. The facility is world-class and really essential for biomedical research in Canada.”

Fakih, Rayan, Robert H. Goldstein, Guennadi Kozlov, and Kalle Gehring. "Burst kinetics and CNNM binding are evolutionarily conserved properties of phosphatases of regenerating liver." Journal of Biological Chemistry 299, no. 4 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbc.2023.103055

Photos: Canadian Light Source | CMCF beamline at the CLS used for this research

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