Cancer researchers at the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Probes, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, have come up with a molecule that has promise as a potential treatment for patients with a variety of types of cancer. While mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, the mechanisms that mesothelioma cells use to grow and divide are the same ones that other cancers use. The Vanderbilt study, while it didn’t focus on mesothelioma, points at potentially productive directions for future mesothelioma research.
Cancer Metabolism as a Focus for Mesothelioma Research
One of the things that differentiates cancer cells from normal, healthy cells is that cancer cells reproduce more quickly. Most of the hallmarks of cancer, according to “The Hallmarks of Cancer” by cancer researchers Douglas Hananhan and Robert Weinberg have to do with growth. The six signs they listed in their original article in 2000 included the fact that cancer cells will grow even when they haven’t received any stimulation to divide (normal cells wait for the appropriate signal to form new cells). Other hallmarks include avoiding apoptosis (the signal from the body to die off), resisting signals that would limit their growth, infinite reproductive capacity, and the ability to stimulate angiogenesis (the process by which our bodies build a new blood supply).
While these factors make cancer a formidable foe, they also point to a major vulnerability of cancer cells. Malignant tumors need a lot of nutrition to fuel their rapid growth. If mesothelioma research can find ways to cut off the flow of nutrients to tumors, this could slow or even stop the growth and metastasis of mesothelioma tumors.
The Vanderbilt researchers felt that advances in precision medicine present opportunities to find new cancer-fighting drugs that starve cancer cells. Their study tests one such substance, a molecule called V-9302.
Potential New Targeted Cancer Treatment: Glutamine Blocker
The researchers call V-9302 “a competitive small molecule antagonist of transmembrane glutamine flux that selectively and potently targets the amino acid transporter ASCT2.” In plain English, V-9302 prevents cancer cells from using glutamine to make protein (which the cells use as fuel).
Glutamine is one of the most common amino acids in our bodies. Healthy cells use it to manufacture proteins and fats and to provide energy. Cancer cells do many of the same things that healthy cells do, but just a lot more of it. You might think of a cancer cell as your annoying Uncle Howie who likes to sit on the couch and eat non-stop. (He’s also pretty angry and he likes to break things. He’s a terrible houseguest.)
The Vanderbilt study used V-9302 to block glutamine transport via ASCT2. ASCT2 (short for alanine-serine-cysteine transport 2) is a protein that acts as a membrane to transport glutamine. Your body’s goal to the have the right amount of glutamine everywhere and ASCT2 helps regulate the flow of this essential amino acid so there’s not too much or too little.
By blocking ASCT2’s ability to transport glutamine to cancer cells, V-9302 slowed the growth of cancer cells and caused more of them to die off. It’s like taking the chips and dip away from Uncle Howie.
The researchers also found that treatment with V-9302 caused oxidative stress in the cancer cells. Normally, oxidative stress is something you want to avoid. When we breathe, our bodies break down oxygen in an essential process called oxidation. Oxidation feeds our cells, but it also produces free radicals, which can damage cells. Our bodies can handle free radicals but, if we end up with too many, they start causing a lot of damage. This imbalance is oxidative stress.
While oxidative stress is something we want to avoid in our healthy tissues, anything that damages malignant tumors is a positive. It’s the equivalent of blowing a horn in Uncle Howie’s ear to make him so uncomfortable he’ll leave.
Focus for Mesothelioma Research
Research into glutamine blockers is at an early stage. Before scientists can determine the effectiveness of V-9302 in cutting off food to cancer cells, they need to develop better testing techniques.
Researchers at Vanderbilt are actively working on this aspect of the problem right now. They are testing new PET scans for several types of cancer, including lung cancer. PET scans use injected radioactive tracers to give doctors an inside view of how your body functions, including the way it metabolizes glucose. A PET scan focused on the functioning of a cancerous tumor could show how the cancer cells take up nutrients and whether V-9302 successfully blocks them.
Once researchers are able to do this kind of very precise testing, the way will be cleared for future mesothelioma research into glutamine blockers.
Ways You Can Contribute to Mesothelioma Research
When you read about the latest developments in cancer treatment or mesothelioma research, you might feel a mixture of hopefulness and helplessness. The next new breakthrough could have a big impact on your life.
Scientific progress in mesothelioma research is like a giant machine with many, many moving parts. One piece moves and then another. The whole moves slowly. One person alone can’t move mesothelioma research forward. But each of us can make a small contribution that contributes to steady progress toward better mesothelioma treatment and, eventually, a cure for mesothelioma.
You can contribute in the most obvious way, by donating money for mesothelioma research. The Kazan McClain Partners’ Foundation donates to a number of institutions that conduct cutting edge mesothelioma research. Two programs that the Foundation supports because of their outstanding contributions to mesothelioma research are the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Thoracic Oncology Program and Thoracic Cancer Program at Stanford University Medical School.
If you have a mesothelioma diagnosis, there’s an even more meaningful way you can contribute to mesothelioma research: by participating in a mesothelioma clinical trial. When you agree to join a clinical trial, you get top-notch mesothelioma healthcare. Your progress is monitored closely by the researchers. You could get an opportunity to try out a new and promising mesothelioma treatment before it’s widely available. There’s always the chance that you will be one of the first to benefit from a scientific advance in mesothelioma treatment.
No matter what the outcome of a clinical trial, however, you will make a big contribution to mesothelioma research. By studying how effective a new mesothelioma treatment is for you, researchers can gather information that will help many other mesothelioma patients.
You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to move mesothelioma research forward. Everyone has a part to play.