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Gene linked to the spread of cancer: Breakthrough or hype?

31 January 2011
Appeared in BioNews 593

Scientists from the University of East Anglia have discovered a gene that appears to play an important role in the spread of cancer.

The gene of interest is called WWP2. The researchers discovered WWP2 triggers the breakdown of a protective protein called Smad7 in cancer cells. By artificially blocking the interaction between WWP2 and Smad7, they found the cancer cells did not undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), a process thought to be critical in the spread of many different cancers.

The spread of cancer, or metastasis, is the process whereby cancer cells dissociate from the primary tumour site and establish a secondary tumour in other parts of the body. Lead author of the paper Dr Andrew Chantry explained: 'This is what eventually kills cancer patients. If a tumour stayed in the same place it would just be a simple case of removing it with surgery'.

Dr Chantry's group now plan to design a drug to block the interaction between WWP2 and Smad7, which they hope will inhibit metastasis. He said: 'If all goes well we believe cancer patients could be being treated by drugs that prevent the spread of their tumours in five to 10 years'. Dr Chantry anticipates this sort of medication could be taken in combination with classical cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Elements of the press have enthusiastically, but loosely, interpreted these findings, implying they will result in cancer cures in the near future. The Daily Express went so far as to claim the scientists were close to the 'holy grail' and that we will soon have a 'cure for most cancers'.

Cancer Research UK's science information manager Dr Kat Arney said: 'The story is about very early laboratory research, which shows promise but is a long way from yielding anything that could be given to patients'. She added: 'Misleading reporting of early-days lab research raises false hopes for patients and their families. Ultimately this leads to a loss of confidence in the genuine progress our researchers - and others around the world - are making'.

Cancer spread mechanism probed
NHS Choices |  25 January 2011
Cure for most cancers ‘soon’
Daily Express |  25 January 2011
'Cure for most cancers' story is overplayed and misleading
Cancer Research UK - Science update blog |  26 January 2011
Faulty gene involved in cancer spread
Cancer Research UK |  26 January 2011
Scientists find gene that helps cancer spread
Evening Standard |  24 January 2011
Selective targeting of activating and inhibitory Smads by distinct WWP2 ubiquitin ligase isoforms differentially modulates TGFβ signalling and EMT
Oncogene |  24 January 2011
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