Glasgow scientists create 3D image of cancer protein

3D images of the protein c-Cbl
Image caption The images show how the c-Cbl protein can switch between two shapes

Scientists in Glasgow have created the first 3D image of a key protein which can help prevent cancer.

c-Cbl controls cell growth which, when unregulated, causes cells to divide excessively and can lead to cancer. It can be defective in leukaemia patients.

By mapping the protein researchers at the Beatson Institute have found it changes shape when working properly.

They say the discovery is a step towards designing more effective cancer drugs in the future.

The Cancer Research UK team used hi-tech X-ray analysis to map out the structure of the protein.

They said discovering that c-Cbl can switch between two shapes could help scientists find ways to prevent faulty c-Cbl from triggering cancer.

Uncontrolled growth

Dr Danny Huang, who led the research, said: "Using cutting-edge research techniques we've created the first 3D image of the structure of this protein - which is pretty incredible because in real life it's about the size of a millionth of a hair width.

"We were intrigued to see that this protein actually changes shape when it's switched on.

"Understanding the structure of this protein is vital because if the protein can't be switched on it is more likely to cause cancer. So cracking the 3D structure is a step towards designing the cancer drugs of the future."

The team showed that when it is "switched on" c-Cbl labels a cell receptor molecule for destruction. In healthy cells this means the cell growth signal is switched off at the right time.

However, in cancer cells the signals do not get switched off, leading to uncontrolled cell growth.

If c-Cbl cannot change to its active shape, it cannot label the receptor for destruction.

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "Thanks to the generosity of the public, we're able to spend more than £18m each year on a range of projects in Glasgow.

"Research like this helps us better understand how cancer cells grow, survive and spread.

"We hope these intriguing 3D structures of a key cancer protection protein will help pave the way to new approaches to tackle this disease more effectively."

The scientists' findings are published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

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