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UCY research could help cancer treatment

Dr Paris Skourides: breakthrough by his research team

By Athena Arsalidou

A LAB at the University of Cyprus (UCY) has undertaken significant research in the field of embryology, which could possibly help in the treatment of cancer.

In an interview with Cyprus News Agency, head of the UCY Laboratory of Developmental Biology and Nanobiotechnology, Dr Paris Skourides, spoke about the breakthrough made by his research team, the results of which were recently published in the scientific journal ‘Development’.

“This work was centered on exploring the role of a protein called FAK in the development of the embryo and specifically its role in morphogenesis. This protein was known to be essential in embryonic development but its precise role was not understood,” he said.

Skourides explained that to determine the role of FAK, they generated a novel inhibitor which is very effective in blocking FAK’s function, allowing them for the first time to probe the role of FAK during gastrulation.

Gastrulation covers the period of development of the embryo from a fertilised egg to a ball of cells which morph into a recognisable embryo with a head, trunk, extremities etc.

During gastrulation, the massive and precisely orchestrated movements of the cells which shape the embryo are called morphogenetic movements (from the Greek words morphi and genesis), he explained.

“Our results show that FAK has a critical role in morphogenesis and its activity is required for a specific morphogenetic movement called epiboly. Defects in epibloy lead to arrest of gastrulation, severe morphological and tissue positioning abnormalities and embryonic death,” he said.

Their work also sheds light on the mechanical integration of individual morphogenetic movements, ie, how one movement is coupled to others giving rise to the three dimensional architecture of the embryo.

Asked how those findings could contribute to the fight against cancer, he said that while normal tissues have very low levels of FAK, tumours significantly over-express this protein.

Specifically, several studies have established FAK as a prominent determinant in cancer initiation, progression and metastasis.

“For this reason, FAK is being actively pursued as a possible therapeutic target, a fact that has motivated the development of FAK inhibitors as anti-cancer drugs,” he said.

According to Skourides, the expression of a previously characterised protein inhibitor of FAK called FRNK, was shown, for example, to suppress both tumour growth and metastasis in mice.

“The new protein inhibitor we designed, called FF, has proved to be far more potent than FRNK both in cultured cells as well as in the embryo suggesting that it would be a good candidate to explore further as a therapeutic agent,” he said.

Asked if the Lab was carrying out any additional research on cancer, he said they are currently in the process of testing the potential of FF as a therapeutic agent.

“Although cancer research is not a major focus of our group the potency of the new inhibitor prompted us to explore its potential in this setting.

“We are comparing the effects of FF expression to those of the previously characterised inhibitor (FRNK) to determine if the high potency of FF in blocking FAK function translates in a high efficiency of suppressing tumour growth and metastasis.”

The initial research on FAK’s role was financed by the European Commission with the Marie Curie Fellowship while the continuation of research was financed by the Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation.
The first results are expected in six months.

The study will initially focus on a particular type of cancer, but as Skourides explained, since the inhibitor seems to have the ability to inhibit cell migration in various types of cells and since cell migration is essential for metastasis, theoretically, research could involve a number of cancer types.

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