University of Texas Health's John Hancock, M.B., B.Chir, Ph.D., ScD, (left) and Yong Zhou, Ph.D., (right) are studying what causes cancer at the molecular level. [The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston]
University of Texas Health’s John Hancock, M.B., B.Chir, Ph.D., ScD, (left) and Yong Zhou, Ph.D., (right) are studying what causes cancer at the molecular level. [The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston]

Research led by scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has revealed a new electrical mechanism that can control the switches that regulate human cell growth. This information is seen as critical in developing treatments for some of the most lethal types of cancer including pancreatic, colon and lung, which are characterized by uncontrolled cell growth caused by breakdowns in cell signaling cascades, according to the scientists.

The research focused on a molecular switch called K-Ras. Mutated versions of K-Ras are found in about 20% of all human cancers in the U.S. and these mutations lock the K-Ras switch in the on position.

“When K-Ras is locked in the on position, it drives cell division, which leads to the production of a cancer,” said John Hancock, Ph.D., Sc.D., the study's senior author and chairman of the department of integrative biology and pharmacology at UTHealth Medical School. “We have identified a completely new molecular mechanism that further enhances the activity of K-Ras.”

The team’s study (“Membrane potential modulates plasma membrane phospholoipid dynamics and K-Ras signaling”) appears in Science. It focused on the tiny electrical charges that all cells carry across their limiting (plasma) membrane. “What we have shown is that the electrical potential that a cell carries is inversely proportional to the strength of a K-Ras signal,” said Dr. Hancock.

With the aid of a high-powered electron microscope, the investigators observed that certain lipid molecules in the plasma membrane respond to an electrical charge, which in turn amplifies the output of the Ras signaling circuit. This is exactly like a transistor in an electronic circuit board. Yong Zhou, Ph.D., first author and assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology at UTHealth Medical School, said, “Our results may finally account for a long-standing but unexplained observation that many cancer cells actively try to reduce their electrical charge.”

Initial work was done with human and animal cells and findings were subsequently confirmed in a fruit fly model on membrane organization.

“This has huge implications for biology,” pointed out Dr.  Hancock said. “Beyond the immediate relevance to K-Ras in cancer, it is a completely new way that cells can use electrical charge to control a multitude of signaling pathways, which may be particularly relevant to the nervous system.”








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