University of Nebraska research could lead to cancer breakthrough

Published: Apr. 26, 2019 at 5:40 PM CDT
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Researchers at the University of Nebraska say they may have found a major key in the fight against cancer.

It's a protein, called FATP2, or Fatty Acid Transport, that takes fatty acids to cells to break down into energy.

Scientists believe starving cells of this protein could slow, or stop, the growth of tumors.

It's an idea twenty years in the making.

"When we first started researching FATP2 in the 1990's, we were focused on the mechanisms of how it worked," said Dr. Paul Black, the department chair for the University's biochemistry program.

Now, after years of learning how it works, scientists may have figured out how to stop it.

"Research is a slow process, but it just pulled together all the pieces," Black said. "All this foundational stuff is finally leading to something translationally that really has high impact."

FATP2 is responsible for bringing fatty acids to cells to convert into energy, but it isn't just limited to good, healthy cells.

"Cancer has to have a blood supply," said Biochemistry professor, Dr. Concetta DiRusso. "It gets from the blood supply all the food that it needs and among that food is the energy which is fat."

Scientists hypothesized that if they could starve cells of this protein, starving cancer cells of this protein may slow the progression of the tumors.

"We boiled it down to one compound that we call 'Lipofermata', so 'Close the door on lipids," DiRusso said.

The compound acts like a gate around the cell, limiting what fat can and cannot get in.

"Your cells can make their own fatty acid to live," DiRusso said. "What we are trying to do is prevent toxic levels from entering in."

The discovery of FATP2 and stopping it, DiRusso and Black say, is just another tool to fight cancer down the road.

"By identifying, one, a target, like FATP2, and two, a particular molecule that can attenuate the activity of that protein, it is part of the entire repertoire of things that can be utilized for any kind of cancer study," Black said.

This step forward, is exciting for these scientists.

"I always tell my students, 'What do we do as scientists and educators?'" Black said. "We improve the human condition. It gives me a lot of pride to know that this little piece that we've done will indeed improve the human condition."

This project was a collaboration between the University of Nebraska and the University of Pennsylvania. That's where the rest of the research will continue. Scientists will start with mice, and eventually, maybe years down the road, move to clinical trials in humans.