Certain molecular switches regulate the growth of human cells – a misfire can lead to life-threatening consequences, including cancer. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) have revealed a novel electrical mechanism that controls these switches. The findings can play a crucial role in formulating treatments for many lethal types of the disease, including colon, lung and pancreatic cancers, which occur due to uninhibited cell growth and malfunctioning cell signaling decades.

Molecular Switch K-Ras

Researchers observed a molecular switch – K-Ras – the mutated version of which contributes to about 20 percent of all cancers occurring in people in the U.S. These mutations lock the switch in its ‘on’ position, driving uncontrolled cell division and causing cancer.

Senior author John Hancock, M.B., B.Chir, Ph.D., ScD, Chairman of the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology at UTHealth Medical School said that the study had identified a novel molecular mechanism that enhances the activity of K-Ras.

Focus Of The Study: Molecular Switch Could Prevent Cancer

The central elements of the study were tiny electrical charges that are carried across the cell membrane. Hancock explained that these electrical potentials are inversely proportional to the strength of a signal emitted by Ras. Using a high-powered electron microscope, the scientists demonstrated that certain lipid molecules in the cell membrane are responsive to electrical charges, leading to amplification in the output of a Ras signaling circuit.

“Our results may finally explain the long-standing unexplained observation that many cancer cells aggressively try to lower their electrical charge”, stated first author Yong Zhou, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology at UTHealth Medical School.

Published in Science, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, researchers said that initial studies were performed using animal and human cells, and the findings were substantiated in a fruit fly model. They claim these reports to be hugely advantageous for biology, since the study shows a totally different perspective of K-Ras in cancer.

“It is an absolutely novel way in which cells can use electrical charge to regulate multiple signaling pathways, which may be particularly relevant to the nervous system”.