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Researchers find common protein link between cancer and autism

Published on 10/03/17 at 11:08am

Researchers from the University of Turku, in Finland, have discovered that there is a common protein, named SHANK, that is found to have an influence on people suffering from cancer and from autism. The role of SHANK in autism had already been known, with its absence or mutation due to genes associated with autism.

The new research found that the protein also plays a role in the ability for cancer cells to spread through the body. In particular, the study observed that the protein prevented the movement of breast cancer cells to the surrounding tissue.

“Amazingly, the ability of cancer cells to adhere and migrate on their environment and invade into surrounding tissue were prevented by SHANK protein -- a molecule previously studied in the central nervous system and linked to autism”, describes graduate student Johanna Lilja.

In the researchers’ experiments, SHANK protein was able to inhibit the action of a protein called Rap1 to activate cell adhesion receptors, called integrins. The crossover between autism and cancer is that the same mechanism that regulates cancer cells ability to spread through the body also relates to the morphology and branching of neurites that play a role in brain function.

“Our results revealed that gene mutations in SHANK, found in autistic patients, impair SHANKs ability to prevent the adherence of both neurons and breast cancer cells. This once again demonstrates the power of basic research in facilitating our understanding of several human diseases”, concluded Professor Johanna Ivaska.

Further studies are now being conducted by the same group of researchers to discover whether SHANK proteins also play a role in other aspects of cancer cells, particularly within the spread and growth of the cells.

Ben Hargreaves

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