Scientists Identify Enzyme Responsible For Helping Cancer to Spread Through Body

    By Kathleen Berger

    Researchers at the University of Missouri discovered how a cancer-critical enzyme is positioned on cell surfaces and is helping to spread cancer throughout the body. The breakthrough is an important step toward the development of pharmaceuticals in the fight against cancer.

    Steven Van Doren, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, is leading this new approach. His weapons include a computer and a 10 foot tall, 800 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, the most powerful one in the state of Missouri. Van Doren and his colleagues use it to observe how a specific enzyme affects tumor cells in the human body, helping them to spread.

    “This enzyme we are studying is like a machete that tumor cells use to bushwhack a path through the connective tissue protein, which is called collagen. So we’re learning how the tumor cells wield that machete, so to speak,” Van Doren said.

    Working like a vertical MRI machine, the NMR spectrometer revealed that the MT1-MMP enzyme ‘sits’ on top of a tumor cell playing a significant role.

    “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,” said Van Doren.

    Van Doren explained how the enzyme has a mechanism similar to blades on an airplane propeller that enables tumors to tunnel through collagen. He said the enzyme is a tool the tumor cells are using to get through tissue. He said the enzyme creates a path for cancer to spread.

    The findings suggest that it might be possible to disrupt how the enzyme works, which would stop its ability to spread cancer throughout the body.

    “We are already beginning to try to intervene in that process. We are now starting a small drug discovery project where we are trying to find drug candidates that bind in the same place where the collagen does to hopefully interfere in that interaction, decreasing the amount of collagen digestion by this enzyme,” said Van Doren.

    He said the findings from his research could also be used for the treatment of arthritis and lung damage from the flu.