One in 14 Ontarians can expect to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in their lifetime. COURTESY OF ED UTHMAN/FLICKR

University of Toronto scientists have identified a key protein as a common factor in the growth of many different types of colorectal cancer tumours, according to research published in the Journal of Cell Biology. Colorectal cancer develops in the colon or rectum. In Ontario, it is also the second most fatal cancer, and one in 14 Ontarians can expect to be diagnosed with this form of cancer in their lifetime.

In past research, scientists have linked the excessive accumulation of beta-catenin, a protein with crucial functions in cell development, to the expression of genes that drive tumour proliferation. Research has associated 80 per cent of colorectal cancers with gene mutations that greatly increase the production of beta-catenin.

The co-authors of the study have identified another protein, Importin-11, as the compound that enables beta-catenin transportation to the nucleus of the human cell. Cancer therapies that inhibit this transport could be a promising way to treat colorectal cancer.

Fundamental research provides “new knowledge” for cancer therapies

The Varsity spoke to Dr. Stephane Angers, a co-author of the study and an associate professor at U of T’s Department of Biochemistry. Angers’ lab has spent a considerable amount of time studying biological pathways — the series of chemical changes during cellular development that give cells their final functions.

Angers noted that Monika Mis, the lead author of the study and a PhD student, uncovered the role of Importin-11 in colorectal cancer in Angers’ lab. Mis used the gene-editing CRISPR-Cas9 technology to screen genes in colorectal cancer calls to identify a novel gene, IPO11, which encodes for the protein Importin-11.

Current treatment options for colorectal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and other radiation therapy. Although this discovery is still in its fundamental stages, blocking the transport of beta-catenin holds great promise for developing new therapies.

As Angers put it, “It provides new ammunition, new possibilities, and new knowledge that could lead in the future to new therapies, but it is very much at the discovery level at this point.”

More research required to develop therapies

Further research could involve drug discovery and widen the scope of Importin-11 function in various cells. Researchers may also find it valuable to analyze existing data about colorectal cancer. The goal is to understand how the mutations affect tumour formation and develop therapies that harness this knowledge.

Angers’ lab is also investigating other potential applications of the Wnt pathway, a specific biological pathway associated with beta-catenin. A particularly interesting aspect is its role in regenerative medicine, which is the study of restoring human cells, tissues, and organs.

“We think that with new molecules that we have developed… we can now activate the pathway… in order to promote the regenerative abilities of tissues,” noted Angers.

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