Early diagnosis improves cancer outcomes by providing care at the earliest possible stage and may increase the chance of survival compared to when it is detected at a later stage. Now, a new study in mice by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast demonstrates how the pathway of an identified protein could lead to early diagnosis and targeted treatment for several cancers and brain disorders.

The researchers uncovered how the molecular pathway of ZNF827 is essential for brain development and how an alteration to its pathway could result in the spread of cancer. Their study is published in Nature Cell Biology, in a paper titled, “A complex epigenome-splicing crosstalk governs epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition in metastasis and brain development.”

“Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) renders epithelial cells migratory properties. While epigenetic and splicing changes have been implicated in EMT, the mechanisms governing their crosstalk remain poorly understood,” wrote the researchers. “Here we discovered that a C2H2 zinc finger protein, ZNF827, is strongly induced during various contexts of EMT, including in brain development and breast cancer metastasis, and is required for the molecular and phenotypic changes underlying EMT in these processes.”

Lead author, Vijay Tiwari, PhD, from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University, explained: “Our study not only sheds light on the development of one of the most important organs in our body—the brain—but it also shows how the same protein that is key for brain development can also be the cause or target for the spread of cancer in the body, a real Jekyll and Hyde protein.

“The process for migrating newborn neurons to proper places during brain development is the same process exploited by tumor cells to gain migration potential, causing the movement of cancer throughout the body, or cancer metastasis.

“By identifying key regulators of these pathways, we open new opportunities for a therapeutic intervention against cancer and a better understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders involving defects in brain development.”

The discovery may have a significant impact on the fundamental understanding of cancer metastasis and brain development and potentially may lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatments.