Cancer continues to be one of the most concerning health issues because it is hard to treat and can be caused by many modern chemicals. The medical community puts a lot of money and time towards studying cancer. Researchers hope to increase our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of cancer, so it will become easier to target the disease. One new study looks particularly promising for those who have head and neck cancers.
Head and Neck Cancers Linked to Certain Proteins
Head and neck cancers are particularly common because the sensitive tissues in the area are frequently exposed to damaging things like airborne pollutants or alcohol. Each time a cell is damaged, there is a small risk that it will turn into a cancerous cell, so head and neck cancers occur frequently. Each year, roughly 600,000 new cases of head and neck cancers are diagnosed.
Most research into the causes of cancer either focuses on environmental toxins or genetic mutations. A team of scientists from the McGill University Health Centre decided to take a new approach and instead look at spontaneous epigenetic mutations which occur when the proteins used to regulate genes stop working. This novel approach to cancer research lead to some fascinating finds that could potentially make it easier to treat cancer.
The researchers found that up to 15 percent of cases of head and neck cancer were caused by a mutation in a specific protein. It turns out that a mutated histone H3 protein can cause many people to develop cancer in the head or neck. When patients develop this type of cancer due to a protein mutation, it is much more resistant to common forms of treatment.
Histone H3 proteins are long chains of amino acids that can easily become malformed when they are damaged. Properly functioning histones help to wind DNA strands into tiny bundles, so they have a very important role in the human body. These proteins are supposed to regulate genes and encourage new cell growth, so when they mutate, they can cause cancer cells to grow out of control.
The scientists were able to find these results looking at data that had already been collected by the Cancer Genome Atlas Consortium. Instead of having to find their own test subjects, they were able to use this database in a unique way to find a correlation between histone H3 mutations and cancer. Study author Dr. Jacek Majewski said:
We made use of the same data but took a completely different approach. Instead of concentrating on genetic mutations, we looked at the effect of these mutations on histone H3 proteins.
This finding could potentially make it much easier to treat patients who have particularly resistant forms of cancer because they could be used to create medications that target abnormal cancer cells without killing healthy cells. There are also some drugs created for patients with melanoma and lung cancer that already work by targeting spontaneous epigenetic histone mutations. They could be used to target these abnormal proteins and slow down or halt the progression of the cancer.
The Next Goal for Cancer Researchers
This study has greatly increased what doctors know about head and neck cancers. Now that they know a certain mutated protein can cause cancer, they can focus on treatment options. Developing a way to block these protein mutations is now a priority for researchers who focus on head and neck cancer. Instead of spending years developing new drugs, the next studies may focus on finding ways to repurpose other drugs and provide quick treatment.
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