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BYU professor co-authors breakthrough cancer research

David Bearss, a BYU biology professor, works in a university lab.
David Bearss, a BYU biology professor, works in a university lab.
Mark A. Philbrick

PROVO — A new discovery by BYU researchers may help doctors identify and better help patients with genetic potential for chemo and treatment resistance.

BYU and University of Iowa researchers discovered NEK2, a gene that seems to be a predictor of how cancer patients may react to therapy. When NEK2 is highly expressed, patients’ cancers often do not respond to chemotherapy, according to the study published in January in the journal Cancer Cell.

“Just the expression of that gene could predict whether a patient would do well on therapy or not,” said David Bearss, a BYU biology professor and co-author of the study. “So that gene seemed to correlate with drug resistance.”

NEK2 is found in normal dividing cells as well as cancer cells, but it becomes a problem as the levels increase.

“Normal cells will have the NEK2 protein, but at much lower levels than the cancer cells,” Bearss said. “And really, that’s how we distinguish patients that are predicted to do poorly versus ones that are predicted to do better on therapy is by the level of expression.”

Michael Deininger, a physician and the chief of hematology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said the research helps explain some of the main features of resistant cancer cells — their instability and their ability to pump specific drugs out of the cells.

“If it was, indeed, the case that NEK2 could be targeted and we would be able to shut down two major drug resistant mechanisms at the same time, that would be a very exciting development,” Deininger said.

This breakthrough has positive ramifications for the cancer front: Doctors can give patients personalized treatment by examining NEK2 levels and, depending on how highly the gene is expressed, lead patients through a specialized, more aggressive process if needed.