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Utahns find link to onset of cancer

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Scientists at the Huntsman Cancer Institute have identified a protein that tells cells where to go in the body and what to become. When that protein, called Syndecan 2, is blocked, cells may make bad, even potentially deadly, decisions.

When the communication process works, the migrating cells become brain, heart, muscle or other types of cells. When the cells don't communicate right, they can become cancer cells, according to Joseph Yost, director of the institute's Center for Children.

The research, conducted by Yost and postdoctoral fellow Ken Kramer, was published last week in the journal Developmental Cell.

"The same signals we are studying now are also important in cell-to-cell communication between normal cells and cancer cells," he said. "This study will help us figure out how a signal is passed from one cell to another and therefore increase our understanding of how cells make decisions to die or keep reproducing as cancer."

Scientists have known for some time that different groups of cells "talk" to each other, Yost said. He and Kramer found the molecular basis of that cell communication.

"The cell sending the signal has a specific protein on its surface that reaches out and touches the recipient cell as that cell is moving across its surface," he said. The contact is very brief, but without it, the migrating cell doesn't get the information it needs and "makes wrong decisions."

The cells that receive the Syndecan 2 message are called mesoderm cells and can grow up to be many different things, such as muscle cells or heart cells or structural cells that go around blood vessels.

Yost describes it as a "basic science project," rather than complicated cancer research. "The connection to cancer is that here we're studying how migrating cells pick up information from the environment through which they're moving about what to do when they get wherever they end up. The fundamental idea in the Center for Children is that we basically think the cancer process is a usurpation of the normal process. If we understand that normal process," we can start to understand what happens that's not normal, he said.

Cancer cells in a localized tumor could decide to migrate, for instance, resulting in metastasized cancer, he said.

Next, researchers want to learn how the Syndecan protein itself is controlled, since different parts of the protein are used to send signals in different groups of cells — each signal quite distinct. And they want to "expand thoughts about the protein into larger questions about cell migration and metastatic cancer."

E-mail: lois@desnews.com