Clue to slowing liver cancer lies in zebrafish

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 21, 2013

SCIENTISTS studying tiny zebrafish have uncovered a way to slow the growth of liver tumours by up to 30 per cent, simply by "switching on" a key protein called Rho.

Findings by the National University of Singapore's Mechanobiology Institute could potentially "buy time" for sufferers to receive treatment for the cancer, which many patients succumb to within months of diagnosis.

Zebrafish with Rho activated survived up to twice as long as those without.

The finding could help to improve the initial prognosis for humans - who also have Rho proteins, said researcher Low Boon Chuan, who led the five-year, $1 million study.

"When patients step into a clinic they're not worrying about the treatment," he said. "They're thinking first about how long they can survive."

Zebrafish are aquarium fish often used in scientific research worldwide because their genes function in a similar way to humans.

In Singapore, liver cancer is the fourth most common cancer among men. It kills around 400 people each year.

Ras and Rho proteins are key to controlling cell growth and tissue development.

The scientists found that activating Rho interrupted liver cancer growth caused by mutated Ras proteins.

Previously, the relationship between the two proteins had not been very well understood, said Professor Low.

But it could take at least 10 years before a drug is developed from their findings, he added.

These were published in July in leading cancer journal Oncogene.

Up to 30 per cent of cancers are caused by mutations to Ras proteins, though scientists have yet to fully understand why. These also include skin, lung and pancreatic cancers.

While the scientists' findings do not necessarily extend to these other cancers, Prof Low is hopeful that his team's findings will prompt more research into them.

His team is now investigating the specific biochemical reactions resulting from Rho and Ras proteins interacting.

They hope to establish zebrafish as a means to screen and identify promising new drugs.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 21, 2013

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