02:45am Thursday 23 January 2020

‘Make-or-break’ protein holds key to cancer spread

A potential cancer cell extruding from an epithelium. Courtesy of Selwin Wu, Yap Lab, UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

University of Queensland researchers have discovered a protein in cells that could block the escape route of potentially cancerous cells and stop them spreading to other parts of the body.

A team of biologists, physicists and mathematicians led by Professor Alpha Yap from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience made the discovery using microscopic imaging and statistical techniques.

“The finding could lead to new targeted treatments for cancer and other diseases,” Professor Yap said.

The researchers revealed and analysed molecular processes that cause potentially cancer-causing cells to escape from epithelial tissues, the layers of cells that cover and protect organs, including skin.

Professor Yap said the team had made important new insights into cancer biology, pinpointing the pathway these cells take to exit the epithelial tissue and investigating how the protein N-WASP can block their escape route.

“Abnormal or dying cells pose a risk to the health of the protective barrier that cells form around our organs,” he said.

“The normal cells that surround these dangerous cells use the complex process of cellular extrusion to push them out of the tissue,” Professor Yap said.

“However, when cancer cells are pushed out, it gives them the opportunity to grow or invade surrounding healthy tissue, which can cause the cancer to spread to other parts of the body and make it harder to control and treat.

“So while our normal cells think they’re doing us a favour by pushing out the bad cells, they’re actually helping the cancer cells to spread,” he said.

Professor Yap said his team had found a way to potentially block the escape routes by inhibiting the protein N-WASP, which regulates the internal skeleton of the cells.

“The pathway that makes or breaks these cells from escaping is regulated by N-WASP,” he said.

“We have found that if we can inhibit N-WASP from functioning, then we can stop these potentially cancerous cells from spreading.”

The study was conducted by researchers from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience in collaboration with Dr Zoltan Neufeld from UQ’s School of Mathematics and Physics.

The research has been published in the scientific journal Nature Cell Biology and was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the Australian Research Council, the Kids Cancer Project of The Oncology Children’s Foundation, and The University of Queensland.

Confocal and optical microscopy was performed at the IMB’s ACRF Cancer Biology Imaging Facility, established with the generous support of the Australian Cancer Research Foundation.

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing medical genomics, drug discovery and biotechnology.

The UQ School of Mathematics and Physics has an international reputation for cutting-edge research and innovative teaching in mathematics, physics and statistics.

Media contact: Gemma Ward, IMB Communications, 07 3346 2155, 0439 651 107

Aiding and Abetting a Culture of Corruption

Watson Lecture Preview

Jean Ensminger is studying a corruption network linked to aid money, using interviews and quantitative analytical methods to follow the money disbursed by a large World Bank project in Africa. Ensminger, Caltech’s Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Sciences, will explain the magnitude of the corruption problem and share some forensic economic techniques that could allow development donors to combat corruption by tracking potential fraud in real time. The talk will be at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, January 15, 2014, in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. Admission is free.


Q: What do you do?

A: I’m an economic anthropologist. I have spent my career trying to understand how economic systems work from the grass roots up in developing countries. Right now I’m studying the role of corruption in that process. Most corruption studies look at grand scandals on the national level, but I also want to understand the impacts of corruption when it percolates down to ordinary people at the village level. Once corruption reaches this level, it has usually become the social norm and works like a vortex sucking more and more systems and individuals into its grip.

There is no methods book that teaches one how to conduct a study of this sort. But that has been part of the excitement, as I had to invent the process as I went along. Had I not built up a lot of trusted networks from 30 years of research in Kenya this would not have been possible. Trust is everything in a project of this sort. Another thing this process has taught me is that time is your friend. The data get better and better.


Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: I have worked with the Orma people in a remote part of Kenya for about 30 years. In 2004 a small micro project came to the village in which I stay, and it was part of a large World Bank project. I did a research paper on the corruption in that micro project that caught the attention of the World Bank. Given the reaction to my work by those running the project, I suspected that “where there is smoke there is fire.” As I broadened my inquiries, I rapidly deduced that the entire project was ripe for further investigation and important enough for me to redirect my primary research orientation.

Research like this is unusual even for an anthropologist. I was in the right place at the right time to do something that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done quite like this before. I had a sabbatical coming up; I had research money available to me; and, because I had been working in Kenya so long, I had a network that gave me access to the top of civil society—people who are household names in Kenya helped me get started. I have never regretted this decision.


Q: Why are you doing this?

A: Although economists have written a great deal about the negative impact of corruption upon economic growth, the level of corruption in aid is not well measured, and I think it’s important to know more. People may love foreign aid or hate foreign aid, but one thing most agree upon is that they would like to see it spent effectively, and certainly not to do harm. Corruption has a corrosive effect upon many individuals who are virtually compelled to participate because the system is pervasive. That is part of the human story.

In spite of all this, there is hope. What keeps me particularly fired up is that this project resonates with so many of the wonderful citizens of Kenya, including the scores of people who bravely provided evidence for this project. People have literally pounded the table to encourage me to keep going, to dig deeper, and to get the word out. It is a good feeling to have the passion I hold for my research shared with Kenyans.



Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech’s iTunes U site.

Written by Douglas Smith

– See more at: http://www.caltech.edu/content/aiding-and-abetting-culture-corruption#sthash.Bo3F3rYI.dpuf

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