Science Bites seeks to compile the latest scientific research updates in bite-sized forms.

1. “Crowdsourcing” cancer gene detector pushes preventive oncology to new heights

Singapore scientists discover new computer system that uses data from multiple sources to better treat cancer. Photo credit: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore
Singapore scientists discover new computer system that uses data from multiple sources to better treat cancer. Photo credit: A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore

While some believe that too many cooks spoil the broth, this is not the case for a new cancer detecting programme developed by A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), including researchers from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS)1.

Dubbed the ConsensusDriver, the programme scans cells for driver genetic mutations known to cause and promote cancer development in cells. It also aims to address the challenge of processing massive datasets that genetic scanning entails. Early detection of these driver mutations buys precious time for patients to receive disease-modifying therapy.

While many such programmes exist, ConsensusDriver is unique as it utilises not one, but 18 different computer algorithms in scanning the human genome1. This increased the detection of treatable mutations in patients by 20%, taking one step closer to precision and optimised medicine.

“The complexity of cancer genetics is one of the biggest challenges that we face in treating it. By precisely identifying actionable mutations, and tailoring treatments to individuals, we are moving a step closer to precision medicine,” comments Professor Ng Huck Hui, executive director of GIS1.

2. Protein “Iron Man” suit revolutionises protein transportation

Assistant Professor Chester Drum holding a 3D model of the first man-made protein folds made using a bacterium's exoshell. With him are researchers Siddharth Deshpande (left), 25, and Priya Desai, 42. Photo credit: Ng Sor Luan/The Straits Times
Assistant Professor Chester Drum holding a 3D model of the first man-made protein folds made using a bacterium's exoshell. With him are researchers Siddharth Deshpande (left), 25, and Priya Desai, 42. Photo credit: Ng Sor Luan/The Straits Times

A team from Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at NUS, has developed a new technique that coerces proteins to re-fold and reassemble itself over smaller molecules – creating a Matryoshka doll of proteins2. This meant a tougher version of an essential protein may be created, which could help in the treatment of a disease like cancer in the future.

The team worked with Archaeoglobus fulgidus – a hardy bacteria that thrives in extremely hot locations such as in hot springs and in deep-sea thermal vents. They found that by simply altering the pH of the bacteria’s microenvironment, ferritin, an iron carrying protein in A. fulgidus, could be coerced to split apart and reassemble itself around a smaller protein2.

The technology can fold and protect a variety of proteins over 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Photo credit: Chester Drum/The Straits Times
The technology can fold and protect a variety of proteins over 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Photo credit: Chester Drum/The Straits Times

The team was successful in creating protein shells for three kinds of proteins. "We knew that it would be very resilient to our experiments. It's essentially an 'Iron Man' suit, an armour that protects and transports the protein, " says Professor Chester Drum, lead investigator of the study3.

"Our highly engineered method means we can specifically guide the folding process, even in a test tube, outside of organs. This makes it more relevant to biological and therapeutic production," he adds. Investigations of the feasibility of this protein-shell technology in cancer treatments are currently being carried out in animal studies3.

3. Blueberry extract boosts radiotherapy efficacy in cervical cancer treatments

Administering resveratrol (extracted from blueberries) in combination with radiotherapy during cervical cancer treatment may confer more positive outcomes, concluded a study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine.4

Radiotherapy often results in heavy collateral damage to healthy tissues surrounding the cervix. Now, researchers have found that resveratrol can mitigate this damage by acting as a radiosensitiser, making cervical cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy4.

It was demonstrated that radiation therapy alone decreased cancer cells by 20%, but this leapt up to 70% when the blueberry extract was combined with radiotherapy.

"Along with reducing cell proliferation, the extract also 'tricks' cancer cells into dying. So, it inhibits the birth and promotes the death of cancer cells," explain Dr. Yujiang Fang, lead author of the study4.

While resveratrol is also found in grapes and red wine, blueberries also contain flavonoids, compounds that have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties5.

"Blueberries are very common and found all over the world," comments Dr Fang. "They are readily accessible and inexpensive. As a natural treatment option for boosting the effectiveness of existing therapies, I feel they would be enthusiastically accepted."5 MIMS

Read more:
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Pancreatic cancer: Researchers unravel mysteries of the disease—discovering new hopes for patients
Are the supposedly high costs of cancer drug R&D due to transparency issues?

Sources:
1. https://www.a-star.edu.sg/News-and-Events/News/Press-Releases/ID/5782/New-algorithm-predicts-treatment-targets-for-cancer-using-wisdom-of-the-crowd.aspx
2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171113111049.htm
3. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/researchers-create-iron-man-suit-for-proteins
4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320517.php
5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171229135254.htm