14. April 2021

Press release: Danish and international researchers reveal a key player in the cell division

PRESS RELEASE: It is impossible to see with the naked eye, and most of us have no idea we have it. Yet it matters to a process happening thousands of times in our body every day. As the culmination of several years of research, researchers from the Danish Cancer Society now show that the protein Ambra1 plays a key role in cell division.  It is knowledge that may be the first step on the path towards personalized medicine for a high number of cancer patients.

The human body is made up of trillions of cells. A number so big, that if put in one row, they could reach around the Earth several times. Every day, some of the cells in our body divide. That way, worn or dead cells are replaced with new ones, so that we always have roughly the same number of cells in the body.

But even though cell division is vital, it can also be dangerous. Because during cell division, our genetic material also divides. And if errors occur so that the new copy is not identical to the old one, it can lead to cancer.

Now, new research from the Danish Cancer Society shows that one of the proteins that affect cell division is the protein Ambra1.

More specifically, it turns out that Ambra1 ensures that in normal cells, the amount of another protein, cyclin D, remains low. So if the amount of Ambra1 decreases, the amount of cyclin D increases, leading to faster cell division and an increased risk of errors occurring in our genetic material. This, in turn, leads to an increased risk of us getting cancer. In fact, it is already known that excessive levels of cyclin D can increase the risk of cancer spreading and reduce the patients’ chances of surviving cancer. This has been seen for instance in lung cancer, bladder cancer and breast cancer.

Although the research on Ambra1 and cyclin D is completely new, there are great opportunities in this new knowledge, which can lead to personalized treatment for certain groups of cancer patients, across diagnosis. Drugs already exist, which are being tested as treatments for breast cancer and which might be relevant for patients with other types of cancer as well, provided the levels of Ambra1 are low. Professor Francesco Cecconi from the Danish Cancer Society’s Center for Cancer Research, leading the new research together with a number of colleagues, says:

– Maybe in the future it will be possible to measure the amounts of Ambra1 in a patient’s cancer cells and then give those with low levels drugs that inhibit the effect of excessive cyclin D. In our experiments we have examined cells from lung cancer, sarcoma and brain cancer, but Ambra1 probably also has an effect in many other types of cancer cells, says Francesco Cecconi.

Many years of research

The new research has been created in an international collaboration with colleagues from Italy, the USA and other research groups in the Danish Cancer Society’s Center for Cancer Research. The new results were achieved thanks to several years of research, says Professor Jiri Bartek, who has participated in the new study:

– During the last 25 years, we have researched and gained great knowledge about how cyclin D works, about control of the cell division and causes and consequences of genetic instability in relation to cancer. This has given us all the necessary methods and models and provided the foundation for the ideas, which have now led to the new and exciting results, says Jiri Bartek.

And gradually, researchers are getting a more detailed picture of all the functions that Ambra1 has in the body. In addition to protection against some cancers, the protein’s ability to regulate cell division plays a role in the development of the brain, and yet another function of Ambra1 enables cells to get rid of waste.

Research in Ambra1 therefore continues, among other things to find answers as to whether Ambra1’s role in cell division also has an impact on other types of cancer. Indeed, some of the next cancers the researchers will investigate are melanoma, osteosarcoma-type bone cancer, and the childhood tumor medulloblastoma.

– We are also very interested in investigating whether Ambra1 is important in regulating some other proteins that orchestrate cell division, says Francesco Cecconi.

Read the full press release from Danish Cancer Society here

Read the scientific article in Nature here

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