"This protein seems to be important in how cells acquire malignant characteristics and how they spread to healthy tissue," said Waldemar Debinski, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Brain Tumor Center of Excellence at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "It is very powerful and may be an attractive target for anti-cancer therapy."
The protein is also involved in late-stage breast, skin, colon and thyroid cancers, suggesting that a new treatment could apply to multiple cancers.
Debinski and colleagues identified the protein while studying glioblastomas, the most common form of brain tumor. Glioblastomas are considered the least curable of all human cancers. Like other tumors, glioblastomas require their own blood supply in order to grow and spread. The researchers' initial goal was to learn what controls this process.
But, when they measured levels of a protein that they thought might be involved, they found only very low levels. Instead, they discovered that a little-known protein called Fra-1 is present at large amounts in the tumor cells.
"We were very surprised when we saw it for the first time," said Debinski. "We had to learn more about Fra-1 because it is not a widely-studied biological factor."
What they learned got them interested in doing further research with Fra-1. For example, the protein is able to regulate a set of different genes.
Fra-1 is what is known as a transcription factor. It is one of many proteins that "reads" the genetic material in cells. If effect, transcription factors help control whether the instructions of genes are carried out by the cells.