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Understanding cancer using the fruit fly

Mon, 08/23/2010 - 1:38pm
EurekAlert

Changes to proteins in a cell underlay many cancers. Rui Martinho at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC), in Portugal, in collaboration with researchers in Ghent (Belgium) and Bergen (Norway) will use the fruit fly to understand exactly how changes to proteins, identified in the test-tube, impact on the way cells divide in a living organism. This study, funded by the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR), will provide inroads into understanding the development of cancer.

Many proteins are modified as they are produced in the cell. Certain molecular groups, such as the acetyl group, can be added to the end of a nascent protein, in a process called N-terminal acetylation. Specific enzymes mediate these modifications which in fact very common (80-90% of human proteins are modified in this manner). These changes affect a wide range of cellular functions during cell division and apoptosis (programmed cell death), essential for the balance of the organism, but they may also be involved in the development of cancer.

It is known that the enzymes responsible for these modifications are over-expressed in certain aggressive cancers, although the biological importance and consequences of their activity is not well understood. Rui Martinho and his collaborators propose to unravel the mode of action of one of these enzymes, in the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

Says Rui Martinho, 'We will focus on the enzyme San, to try to identify its targets, regulation and the consequences of its actions and, ultimately, its impact on how cells divide. This approach will allow a better understanding of the role of these modifications in tissue proliferation and cancer development in a context closer to our own, rather than in cell cultures and unicellular organisms, as previous studies have done.

AICR is he leading charity funding cancer research around the world whose aims are to save lives by investing in vital research to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment cancer.

Dr Mark Matfield of AICR says "Rui Martinho fought off stiff competition from around the world in order to get this funding and we are looking forward to seeing what light his research will shed on the cancer research field'.

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