The incredible breakthrough was made by members of the Biochemistry Department from the University of Missouri. Led by Steven Van Doren, the team discovered that one enzyme is creating a convenient path for tumors to spread cancer throughout the body.
In order for the mutated cells to disseminate, they need to make their way through collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, responsible for providing structural strength to bones and tissue. One molecule, now dubbed MT1-MMP, can “sit” on the surface of a tumor cell and digest the collagen in its path, opening the doors for cancer to advance. Disrupting the way it “sits” could stop the disease in its tracks.
“The MT1-MMP enzyme has four ‘blades,’ like the blades on a propeller. Our study shows that two of the blades stick to tumor cells. Because there are two blades, the enzyme can stick to the cell in two different ways. We found that one orientation allows the enzyme to digest the collagen while the other probably interferes with that process”, noted Dr. Van Doren.
Testing involved an 800 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, the most powerful NMR piece of equipment in the state of Missouri, to observe how the MT1-MMP enzyme bound itself to tumor cells. Using radio waves to track the relevant molecules allowed researchers to identify the specific “blades” that are critical in this linking process. The findings were confirmed by other measurements using fluorescent light.
“We now understand the importance of targeting enzymes like this one selectively. Focusing specifically on the MT1-MMP enzyme allowed us to gather specific results that have practical applications for potential pharmaceuticals and further research”.
The work was done at the MU labs benefits not only cancer research, but can also help improve the treatment of arthritis to decrease joint damage and to decrease lung damage from the flu.