Inflammation can slow the early development of cancers in a protein-producing gene, said Georgetown University Medical Center researchers and alumni who took part in a five-year study published Nov. 3.
The report also advised cancer patients to exercise caution when using anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
The slowing down of cancers linked to the mutation of the Neurofibromin 2 gene can be triggered by inflammation, according to the research team led by researcher Chunling Yi, an assistant professor at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center’s molecular oncology program. However, inflammation can also speed up the growth of cancerous cells after a certain point, placing patients taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs at risk.
In an interview with THE HOYA, Yi explained the positive effects DNA damage can have on cancerous cells and why inflammation can be beneficial.
“When you have a tumor that is already formed, DNA damage can actually be a good thing for the tumor cells because it makes the tumor cells grow slower,” Yi said. “So, if you try to reduce DNA damage and inflammation in a tumor cell, it can actually have a counterproductive result.”
Yi added that one of the pathways linked to the NF2 gene’s formation of merlin, which involves a protein known as Rac1, actually suppresses cancerous cells early in their development.
“You think about Rac1 like a brake on the tumor cells,” Yi said. “The sense is that there’s too much happening so they actually put a brake on it. When you take this brake away, the cells will grow out of control.”
Yi noted that the study’s original purpose was to see which pathway involved with NF2 was most important for cancer proliferation: either the one involving Rac1 or another involving the protein Yap.
According to Yi, the discovery of Rac1’s role as a cancer suppressor actually surprised the researchers, who did not think it inhibited cancer.
“We realized when we did this experiment in a mouse, it was much more complicated than we thought,” Yi said. “Rac1 actually had the opposite effect than we originally hypothesized.”
Two former Georgetown undergraduate students, Yuhao Shi (NHS ’15) and Saumya Bollam (COL ’16), assisted Yi in the study, marking the first times their names have appeared in a research publication.
Shi said the study could have multiple potential effects, including helping drug developers create more targeted therapies to treat cancers involved with the NF2 pathway.
“Once we can find more druggable targets to different proteins that are essential for how the disease happened, those therapies are more specific,” Shi said. “There’s less side effects and it’s more personalized for that specific disease.”
Bollam said with the new information, some treatments of cancers involving the Rac1 protein could be made more effective.
“You have to be careful on how you see the conclusion from any study because there’s obvious limitations,” Bollam said. “What we were able to achieve, in part, was there’s some treatments that are being given to patients who have cancers that have a molecular background that might not work as well.”
Both Shi and Bollam praised working in a lab environment with Yi. Shi, who worked with Yi during his freshman year at Georgetown, encouraged other undergraduate students with an interest in the sciences to get involved with research.
“I think this was a great story for undergrads who are pursuing research now. And that is, you can do a lot, and there’s a lot to be accomplished as an undergrad in a lab,” Shi said. “That’s undervalued sometimes.”
Bollam, who worked with Yi from her sophomore to senior year, said students might find the application of concepts learned from class to be helpful to their overall understanding of scientific issues.
“I found that I did my best learning in Dr. Yi’s lab,” Bollam said. “It was miles more beneficial to me to learn by doing than learn by lectures in the classroom and there was a lot that I learned through my regular classes I was able to apply in the lab.”