SFU duo’s protein discovery links to cancer research

A Simon Fraser University graduate student’s collaboration with her thesis supervisor on how a particular type of protein controls the growth of another protein could advance cancer research.

Esther Verheyen, an SFU professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, helped her Master’s of Science student Joanna Chen uncover how the Hipk protein kinase can be manipulated to stop tissue overgrowth in flies. Yorkie, known as Yap in humans, is another type of protein that induces the overgrowth of cell tissue in the eyes, legs and wings of flies. High levels of Yap are often found in human tumours.

In experiments on the fruit fly Drosophila, Verheyen and Chen first found that Hipk could cause overgrowths similar to those found on tissue with too much Yorkie. The researchers then genetically generated flies in which there was a higher concentration of Yorkie but a lower concentration of Hipk present than normal in their organ and limb tissues.

“When we did that,” says Chen, “Yorkie could not cause overgrowths anymore. We were able to show this need for Hipk to be present in a number of different fly tissues, such as the eyes, legs and wings.”

Chen and Verheyen say their discovery is generating a lot of excitement in the molecular biology science community. “We have identified a factor that in flies is required for even overly active Yorkie to trigger overgrowth,” explains Chen, who graduated in June. She begins working as a research assistant at the Vancouver Prostate Centre in August.

The two are now checking to see if this new cell growth regulation mechanism they’ve discovered is conserved across different species, including mice, which have similar Hipk proteins to humans.

Their findings have just been published in the online July 26 issue of Current Biology, a CellPress journal.

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