A "vicious cycle" produces mucus that protects uterine and pancreatic cancer cells and promotes their proliferation, according to researchers at Rice University. The researchers offer hope for a therapeutic solution.
They found that protein receptors on the surface of cancer cells go into overdrive to stimulate the production of MUC1, a glycoprotein that forms mucin, aka mucus. It covers the exposed tips of the elongated epithelial cells that coat internal organs like lungs, stomachs and intestines to protect them from infection.
But when associated with cancer cells, these slippery agents do their jobs too well. They cover the cells completely, help them metastasize and protect them from attack by chemotherapy and the immune system.
Details of the new work led by biochemist Daniel Carson, dean of Rice's Wiess School of Natural Sciences, appear in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry.
In the paper, Carson, lead author Neeraja Dharmaraj, a postdoctoral researcher, and graduate student Brian Engel described MUC1 overexpression as particularly insidious not only for the way it protects tumor cells and promotes metastasis, but also because the cells create a feedback loop in which epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) and MUC1 interact to promote each other.
Carson described EGFR as a powerful transmembrane protein that stimulates normal cell growth, proliferation and differentiation. "What hadn't been considered is whether this activated receptor might actually promote the expression of MUC1, which would then further elevate the levels of EGFR and create this vicious cycle.
"That's the question we asked, and the answer is 'yes,'" he said.
Carson compared mucus to Teflon. "Things don't stick to it easily, which is normally what you want. It's a primary barrier that keeps nasty stuff like pathogenic bacteria and viruses from getting into your cells," he said.
But cancer cells "subvert systems and find ways to get out of control," he said. "They auto-activate EGFR by making their own growth factor ligands, for example, or mutating the receptor so it doesn't require the ligand anymore. It's always on."