Research into ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ protein could lead to early cancer diagnosis

10 Aug 2022

Image: © luchschenF/

It is hoped that this research will help further our understanding of cancer metastasis and brain development, leading to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have discovered how a molecular pathway that is essential for brain development can also result in the spread of cancer through the body.

The team said there is a particular pathway, called epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT), for cell migration that is vital for processes such as brain development and wound healing. But this pathway is also used by cancer cells for metastasis, which is when cancer spreads to different parts of the body.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for an estimated one in every six deaths in 2020.

By the time cancer tumours are detected, some cells from the primary tumour have often spread to other parts of the body through metastasis. While chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments can deal with primary cancer tumours, metastasis can make the outcome unpredictable and can lead to relapse.

In a study published today (10 August) in Nature Cell Biology, the research team from Queen’s University Belfast identified a particular protein as a critical regulator of EMT.

The study suggests this ZNF827 protein is used to move newborn neurons to proper places in early brain development, but is also exploited by tumour cells to spread to other organs.

“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,” said Dr Vijay Tiwari of Queen’s, lead author of the study.

Tiwari said identifying a key regulator of EMT opens “new opportunities for a therapeutic intervention against cancer”.

It is hoped that this discovery will have an impact on our fundamental understanding of both cancer metastasis and brain development, which could lead to earlier diagnosis and better treatments for several cancers as well as brain disorders.

Earlier this month, Queen’s researchers received a £228,900 grant to search for new breast cancer treatments inspired by Covid-19 vaccine innovations.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic