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Scientists discover how antibiotic molecule found in bacteria stops breast cancer

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23 August 2011

Scientists have discovered how a molecule that was first discovered in bacteria blocks a protein which causes breast cancer to develop and spread, reveals research published in Nature Chemistry on Sunday.

Image shows breast cancer viewed under a microscope. Image: Duncan Smith/Photodisc/Thinkstock 2011

Image shows breast cancer viewed under a microscope.
Image: Duncan Smith/Photodisc/Thinkstock 2011

Scientists at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and The University of Cambridge, have revealed at the molecular level how thiostrepton - a naturally-occurring cancer-protector molecule - 'clamps' a cancer-causing protein called FOXM1, preventing it from working.

FOXM1 is present in greater amounts in breast cancer cells. It attaches to specific stretches of DNA - switching on genes regulating the growth and division of cells. It also causes tumours to spread and triggers the growth of blood vessels which supply tumours with nutrients for growth.

Blocking this protein may prevent the development of cancer at an early stage as well as block cancer growth and spread.

Designing drugs to stop proteins like FOXM1 is a huge challenge for scientists. But this new information will allow researchers to design small molecules that mimic thiostrepton - but are even more effective at blocking the cancer-promoting effects of FOXM1.

Lead author, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian, based at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute, said: "Before this research we weren't aware of any natural product which could directly target a protein that controls gene activity. Yet intriguingly a molecule in bacteria - which also has strong antibiotic effects - does this very well, switching off cancer-causing genes in breast cancer cells.

"This naturally-occurring molecule doesn't have all the right properties to be used as a breast cancer treatment itself. But this exciting discovery paves the way for the design of more potent and selective drugs based on the structure of thiostrepton to block the FOXM1 protein."

Around 48,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and around 12,100 UK women die from the disease.

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, said: "Survival rates for breast cancer have been improving for 30 years thanks to the development of more targeted treatments. But there is more to be done. One huge challenge is how to prevent breast cancer from spreading to other parts of the body - once a cancer has spread it becomes more difficult to treat successfully.

"It's fascinating to discover how a simple bacteria could hold the key to powerful new approaches to treat breast cancer developing and spreading."

ENDS

Notes to editors

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Referrence: The transcription factor FOXM1 is a cellular target of the natural product thiostrepton. Hegde et al. Nature Chemistry.

About the University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge's mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. It is made up of 31 colleges and more than 100 departments that cater for some 12,000 undergraduate and 6,000 postgraduate students.

The University's reputation for outstanding academic achievement is known worldwide and reflects the intellectual achievement of its students, as well as the world-class original research carried out by the staff of the University and the Colleges.

Some of the world's most significant scientific breakthroughs have occurred at the University, including the splitting of the atom, invention of the jet engine and the discoveries of stem cells, plate tectonics, pulsars and the structure of DNA. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, the University has nurtured some of history's greatest minds and has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other UK institution with more than 80 laureates.

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About Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK is the world's leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research

  • The charity's groundbreaking work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives. This work is funded entirely by the public
  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival rates double in the last forty years
  • Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses
  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7121 6699 or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
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