Worms Point to New Approach for Controlling Cancer

Protein Called Fer Constrains Cell Division

A collaboration between scientists at UCSB and Hope College, Michigan has led to new findings in cancer research. Experiments on tiny roundworms revealed that a compound known as the Fer protein, whose role in sticking cells together is well known, also prevents them from dividing excessively.

Working with a tiny roundworm known as C. elegans — a major experimental model animal in biomedical science — the scientists found that cells divided ad infinitum when the protein Fer was removed. This may mimic what happens in certain human cancers.

The findings were detailed in a paper published in the widely cited journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was led by Joel H. Rothman, chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at UCSB, and Aaron Putzke of Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

“Other studies have shown that Fer protein levels are altered in cancers such as prostate cancer and myeloid leukemia,” Putzke said.

Rothman explained that it is important for cells to stick together and work in communities. Cancer cells do not stick together properly, instead breaking free from their community and spreading outward. The obvious conclusion was that the Fer protein’s role in cancer progression was related to its function in cellular glue. However, Putzke said, “Our results suggest that Fer may act in cancer not by changing cell adhesion, but by allowing cells to divide unchecked.”

The research showed that the Fer protein’s effect was to constrain a cell signaling system known as the Wnt (pronounced “wint”). In the absence of the Fer protein, the Wnt signal became overzealous and caused cells to multiply when they shouldn’t.

Rothman pointed out that the results are a reminder of how obvious conclusions are not always correct. However, he added that a “complex set of events goes wrong in cancer cells. It may well be that Fer is an important player in cancer because it acts both in cell adhesion and in stopping cells from dividing.”

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