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New Synthetic Form of Protein Holds Promise to Stop Cancer Spread E-mail
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Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee have a pending patent on a new synthetic form of a protein involved in certain types of cancers and immune system diseases.

The protein, CXCL12, is known as a chemokine. Chemokines are proteins that regulate the movement of cells into tissues and recruit infection-fighting white blood cells to infected and injured sites. They essentially act as homing beacons for the immune system.

New information on the structure of the protein was discovered in the lab of Brian Volkman, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry at the Medical College. The findings were based on seminal reports by Michael Dwinell, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, who initially inspired Dr. Volkman to look into the properties of CXCL12 in 2001.

"We hope that stable synthetic versions of CXCL12 will allow us to conduct proof-of-concept studies about cancer prevention," Dr. Volkman says. "It's clear that CXCL12 is an important molecule for designing new ways to treat cancer."

The new findings from the Medical College are published in the September issue of Science Signaling, a new online journal published by Science magazine. Christopher Veldkamp, Ph.D., a biochemistry graduate of the Medical College's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, who was awarded a postdoctoral research fellowship by the American Cancer Society earlier this year, is lead author of the study.

It had been previously established that CXCL12 and its target cellular receptor, CXCR4, played an important role in the migration of cancer cells to common sites of tumor formation, such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, liver and lung tissue. Dr. Dwinell's laboratory established that CXCL12 expression was key to interfering with the progression of cancer.

To discover the new inhibitor, Dr. Volkman's lab created a new three-dimensional model of how the CXCL12 protein interacts with a portion of the CXCR4 receptor. Because previous research on the CXCL12 structure failed to resolve these details, a key step in the spread of metastatic cancer remained poorly understood.

To complete the molecular model for CXCL12 binding to CXCR4, Drs. Volkman and Veldkamp discovered that it was necessary to link two CXCL12 molecules, in effect locking it into a form that could not be chemically separated. This locked form of the protein, known as a dimer, could still bind to the CXCR4 receptor.

However, the locked protein displayed different behavior than the unlocked form. A normal CXCL12 protein strongly induces cell migration, but the locked form of the protein caused no cells to migrate at all.

The researchers then ran another experiment to see what would happen if the normal CXCL12 and locked CXCL12 dimer were combined. The combined molecule had the opposite effect of the single molecule, and it resulted in a near elimination of cell migration. This meant they had discovered that it was possible to convert CXCL12 into a protein that inhibits cell migration.

"This was exciting because it was genuinely unexpected," says Dr. Volkman. "It was the strongest suggestion yet that chemokine dimers might really be active participants in directing the migration of white blood cells and possibly other kinds of cells."

Dr. Volkman says the next step is establishing if the CXCL12 dimer could be effective in inhibiting the spread of cancer. He again turned to the assistance of Dr. Dwinell, who had filed an earlier patent application on the use of CXCL12 in limiting cancer progression. This pending patent also involved a graduate student, Michael Wendt.

"While we were focused on understanding details of the molecular structure of CXCL12, Dr. Dwinell's research group had developed a sophisticated method for measuring breast cancer metastasis," he says. "So we asked him to help us design experiments to find out if his CXCL12 dimer could interfere with the spread of cancer."

While it's not clear yet if the CXCL12 dimer will have the effect Dr. Volkman hopes for, he says that this discovery is just the beginning of his lab's experiments with the properties of this molecule.

Dr. Volkman's lab will also investigate if CXCL12 has any protective effects on the heart following a traumatic event, such as a heart attack. While these experiments are also in their early phases, he is hopeful and acknowledges that this breakthrough would not have been possible without the collaborations of Dr. Veldkamp, Dr. Dwinell and others.

"Collaborations promote the exchange of ideas between scientists from different backgrounds and often lead in completely unanticipated directions," he says. The study was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

Side Bar: Graduate Student Discovers Link Between Expression of Key Protein and Cancer Spread

Seminal research done by faculty colleague Michael Dwinell, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and director of the Bobbie Nick Voss Laboratory for Colon Cancer Research at the Medical College of Wisconsin guided Dr. Brian Volkman's discovery of a new form of protein. Dr. Dwinell's study of these proteins has led him to develop a proprietary method to improve the detection of spreading (metastatic) cancers, and potential therapies with applications in cancer as well as inflammatory disorders of the gut.

Dr. Dwinell's laboratory has two patents pending based on findings recently published in Oncogene and Gastroenterology demonstrating that expression of CXCL12 was decreased or even absent in a significant cohort of human patients with colon or breast cancer. Michael Wendt, a Medical College Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences student in the Dwinell lab, went on to show that re-expression of CXCL12 in colon or breast cancer cells led to a pronounced decrease in tumor metastasis.

These findings were surprising given the important role for the CXCL12 receptor, a protein called CXCR4, on tumor metastasis. These findings suggested that a healthy balance in CXCL12 and CXCR4 were beneficial in limiting tumor metastasis. Ongoing studies are trying to find ways to maintain this balance in CXCL12 and CXCR4 to benefit cancer patients.

"The collaborative environment of the Medical College fosters creative growth between researchers and physician/scientists, and has been a tremendous benefit to our studies," says Dr. Dwinell.

Dr. Dwinell and Michael Wendt, believed that deficiency of this protein might be an important step in the progression of cells from normal to cancerous. Dr. Wendt later found that re-expression of CXCL12 in cancer cells led to a decrease in tumor metastasis. Dr. Wendt's research received an Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Medical College School of Biomedical Sciences in 2008.

Dr. Dwinell is a national leader in studies investigating the function of the CXCL12 protein and its receptor CXCR4. His laboratory has been examining the role of these proteins in gut repair related to injury by inflammatory bowel diseases and food or water-borne infections since 1999. His laboratory has determined that CXCL12 and CXCR4 play important roles not only in the restitution processes in the gut and tumor metastasis but can also enhance endothelial tube formation in specialized gut vascular cells grown in culture. More recently, when he extended those studies to the role of these proteins in the spread of breast and colon cancers, he inspired Dr. Volkman to look into the impact that alternate forms of the proteins might have on cell migration.

Dr. Dwinell's research has received funding by the National Institutes of Health, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, the Medical College Cancer Center. He has recently received support from a private charitable donation from Bobbie Nick Voss Charitable Funds, to name his laboratory in honor of the memory of Bobbie Nick Voss, a local automotive executive who was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 47 and succumbed to it at 51.

About Cancer

Cancer (medical term: malignant neoplasm) is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which a group of cells display uncontrolled growth (division beyond the normal limits), invasion (intrusion on and destruction of adjacent tissues), and sometimes metastasis (spread to other locations in the body via lymph or blood). These three malignant properties of cancers differentiate them from benign tumors, which are self-limited, do not invade or metastasize. Most cancers form a tumor but some, like leukemia, do not. The branch of medicine concerned with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of cancer is oncology.

Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems. Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they start - for example, cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer; cancer that begins in basal cells of the skin is called basal cell carcinoma. Cancer types can be grouped into broader categories. The main categories of cancer include:
  • Carcinoma - a cancer which is derived from the lining cells, or epithelium, of an organ. There are 4 major types of epithelium in the body (Glandular, squamous, transitional, and pseudostratified). Some types are only found in a few select organs such as the lung (pseudostratified) or urinary bladder (transitional). Carcinomas can arise from any of these epithelial types. For example, breast carcinoma is most commonly derived from the lining cells of the milk producing glands. A carcinoma with a glandular growth pattern is an adenocarcinoma. Common adenocarcinomas include prostate, colon, and breast. A carcinoma with a growth pattern resembling the squamous lining cells is termed a squamous cell carcinoma. Common squamous cell carcinomas are found in the esophagus and skin. However, any of these organs may have either type of carcinoma arising from it, although these latter diagnoses are exceedingly rare.
  • Central nervous system cancers - cancers that begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Leukemia - cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the blood.
  • Lymphoma - a cancer derived from the white blood cells that are present in the lymphoid tissues of the body. These sites most commonly include the lymph nodes and spleen. However, lymphomas may arise from any organ and body site.
  • Sarcoma - cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue.

Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. The risk of developing most types of cancer can be reduced by changes in a person's lifestyle, for example, by quitting smoking, limiting time in the sun, being physically active, and eating a better diet. Half of all men and one-third of all women in the US will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

Although doctors often cannot explain why one person develops cancer and another does not, research shows that certain risk factors increase the chance that a person will develop cancer. Nearly all cancers are caused by abnormalities in the genetic material of the transformed cells. These abnormalities may be due to the effects of carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals, or viruses, bacteria, and certain hormones. Other cancer-promoting genetic abnormalities may be randomly acquired through errors in DNA replication, or are inherited, and thus present in all cells from birth. Other common risk factors for cancer include:
  • Growing Older
  • Family history of cancer
  • Poor diet, lack of physical activity, or being overweight
  • Alcohol

 

 
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