By focusing on a tumor suppressor known as Merlin, the team was able to identify how the growth of tumors can be halted and what occurs that allows tumors to develop. This research is groundbreaking because understanding the signaling system and how Merlin is able to suppress tumors paves the way for future research that can create drug therapies to combat brain cancer.
Normally, cells in our body divide rapidly to facilitate growth and repair other damaged cells. To prevent cells from dividing more than they should and subsequently producing more cells than the body can hold, tumor suppressors function to end cell division when necessary. As a tumor suppressor, Merlin is a protein that does just that and the mechanism by which it works occurs within the nucleus of a cell. When Merlin is compromised, tumors arise because there is nothing to prevent the abnormal growth of cells in our bodies.
Researchers in the study discovered that unsuppressed tumors increase by a core signaling system known as the hippo pathway in the brain. They have also pinpointed the route and method that allows the signaling system to function. Identifying this system and knowing how suppressors like Merlin work will enable scientists to create drug therapies that will also suppress the signaling. Neuroscientists already know that we inherit two copies of a tumor suppressor on each chromosome from our parents. Merlin can be compromised when there is a random loss of both copies in one cell, creating sporadic tumors, or through inheriting an abnormal copy and losing the other copy throughout one’s lifetime.
Although there remains no effective treatment for brain tumors except invasive surgery or radiotherapy, researchers remain hopeful for the future. Brain surgery normally focuses on one tumor at a time, reducing the chance of removing the entire scope of tumors. However, Professor Oliver Hanemann of Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry notes that they “have come tantalizingly close to understanding how [the loss of Merlin] occurs. By understanding the mechanism, we can use this knowledge to develop effective drug therapies to treat patients for whom current therapies are limited and potentially devastating.”