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Understanding the molecular mechanisms that allow cancer cells to keep on growing

  • Researcher: Dr Sara Sigismund
  • Institution: The FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology Foundation, Milan, Italy
  • Award Amount: £192,110 for 3 years from 1 June 2016
  • Cancer Type: General Cancer Research
Understanding the molecular mechanisms that allow cancer cells to keep on growing
Dr Sara Sigismund is investigating how cancer cells manage to keep growing, bypassing safety checks meant to stop them.

In healthy cells, the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) on the cell surface works as an antenna: it receives signals from the organism and instructs cells to survive and grow. However, if it is not correctly switched off, EGFR signalling can cause abnormal cell growth leading to cancer.

One mechanism that switches off EGFR signalling is endocytosis, a process where receptors are removed from the cell surface and internalized into the cell by inclusion into tiny membrane-bound structures called vesicles.

Dr Sigismund and her team have discovered a novel type of vesicle that exclusively directs EGFR to degradation. The EGFR is captured into these vesicles only when cells receive a high amount of signal. Importantly, blocking this mechanism causes EGFR signalling to be persistently turned on.

The researchers think that this mechanism represents a crucial ‘safety check’ that protects cells from overstimulation, and suspect that that cancer cells might turn it off so they can keep growing. In this project they will study the cell proteins involved in this specific process. They envisage their work will open the way to the identification of novel mechanisms used by tumour cells to escape the cell’s defences against excessive growth.  
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