The cell’s ‘hand’ could revolutionise drug development

cell hands
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Researchers suggest that studies on ‘cell hands’ could dissolve barriers in health research, drug development and bioengineering.

Syndecan-4, a protein found in the human body, combines with cell membrane proteins, called integrins, to form protruding ‘hands’ that sense the environment outside the cell.

Both proteins reside in the cell membrane, with one end pointing inside the cell and the other outside. They are in a prime position to sense conditions outside the cell and convert signals to biochemical messages that change conditions inside the cell. In doing so, they’re able to drive some of the cellular processes behind cancer and other diseases.

Research conducted by a team at Imperial College London, Queen Mary University of London, and Tampere University in Finland, could present a new research pathway and drug target for certain cancer types.

Lead researcher Dr Armando del Río Hernández, of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “Our findings could have immediate implications in the fields of cell and developmental biology, and lead to developments in several diseases including cancer and fibrosis.”

Syndecan-4 exists in nearly every human cell and is known for its role in cardiovascular disease. To study syndecan-4 the research team, led by Dr del Río Hernández, used biophysical, cell biology, and computational techniques. The team found that activating these cellular ‘hands’ triggers a pathway with key roles in disease development, involving a cellular protein called the yes-associated protein (YAP).

YAP prompts some of the typical hallmarks of cancer. It lessens cells’ ability to programme their own death, in a process called apoptosis. Cells initiate apoptosis when they age or malfunction, so halting apoptosis allows diseased, even cancerous, cells to spread. YAP also controls the development of blood vessels—a hallmark of cancer as tumour growth requires extra blood flow.

The research team also found that syndecan-4 aids cell response to movements outside themselves, by creating tension in the cytoskeleton—the ‘scaffolding’ within cells. This makes cells stiffen, which activates an enzyme called PI3K that regulates additional hallmarks of cancer.

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