UGA researcher unlocks links between complex carbohydrates and spread of cancer

September 10, 2001

Research at the University of Georgia may lead to a revolutionary breed of treatments aimed at preventing the spread of cancer. Michael Pierce, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has discovered an enzyme that could help unravel the mystery of how cancer spreads in the human body. If he and his team of researchers can find an inhibitor of this enzyme that works in the body, they may be able to develop a drug that would bind to that enzyme and prevent or slow the migration of cancer cells.

"The real killer is when cancer spreads. Almost every cancer that kills does so because it invades tissues and then moves to another location," Pierce said. "If you can remove the tumor and irradiate everything around it, there's a good chance the person will survive. If the cancer cells have gone to another tissue, you can't really find the tumor until it grows larger and by then it's very difficult to treat."

In his lab at UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, Pierce works to understand how carbohydrates affect cell adhesion and migration. His research, which focuses on breast and pancreatic cancer, is supported by grants of more than $2 million from the National Cancer Institute.

To migrate, a cell must achieve a delicate balance between holding on and letting go. Pierce compares it to walking on a frozen pond. Somewhere between slipping on the ice and freezing to it is the amount of traction that will allow movement.

"A cell has to be able to adhere in order to move, but if it adheres too much, it stops moving," Pierce said.

The surface of every cell contains complex carbohydrate structures that are similar to the branches of a tree. These carbohydrates are integral to the proper function of the receptors on a cell's surface that serve as a communication network.

Receptors receive messages at the cell surface and send information back to the nucleus - information that influences whether a cell divides, stays in one place, or migrates to another part of the body.

When a cell becomes cancerous, its carbohydrate branches change and so do the messages sent back to the nucleus. Starting with the altered branches, Pierce and his team worked backward to find what caused these carbohydrate changes, eventually identifying the enzyme GnT-V, which was patented through the University of Georgia Research Foundation.

Subsequent studies have revealed that when a cell is forced to produce large amounts of GnT-V, adhesion goes down and the rate of migration goes up. Over-produced in many cancer cells, GnT-V accelerates cancer invasion.

Inhibiting GnT-V activity appears to slow progression of some cancers. If Pierce can create a specific inhibitor of GnT-V that works in the body, preventing the spread of some cancers might be achieved with a simple injection.

There are also diagnostic possibilities for Pierce's research. Diagnosing a specific malignancy could become as simple as screening a blood sample.

"Cancer biotechnology is now starting to yield promise," Pierce said. "The key to curing cancer still will be early detection and early intervention that keeps the cancer from spreading."

University of Georgia

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