London: Oxford researchers led by an Indian-origin scientist have identified a protein that tumours use to detect food supplies and found that it could be targeted to starve a tumour and halt its growth.
A team from Oxford University's Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics led by Dr Deborah Goberdhan studied the effects of the protein called PAT4 on cancerous cells.
"We found that aggressive cancer cells manufacture more PAT4, which enables them to make better use of available nutrients than the cells around them - including healthy tissue," said Goberdhan.
Cancer cells often have restricted access to the body's nutrient-rich blood supply. The ability to sense and acquire nutrients is critical for a cancer to grow.
Goberdhan worked with cancer doctor and researcher, Professor Adrian Harris, to develop an antibody that could be used to highlight PAT4 in human tissue samples.
This was then used to study anonymous tumour samples taken from patients with colorectal cancer, a common form of the disease.
The results were compared to the known outcomes for the patients. Those who had higher levels of PAT4 in their tumours did less well than those with lower levels - being more likely to relapse and die.
The researchers then looked at what happened when PAT4 levels were reduced. They showed that by reducing PAT4 levels, cancerous tumours grew more slowly.
"Not only do higher levels of PAT4 mean a worse outcome, but lowering levels improves the situation," said Goberdhan.
"This means that we have identified a mechanism, which cancer cells prefer to use and which we might be able to target as part of a combination treatment," she said.
The study is published in the journal Oncogene.