Scientists at the University of Plymouth reveal, for the first time, the role of the cellular prion protein in the development of neurofibromatosis 2 tumors — with potential impact on other cancers, too.
Image on left is a schwannoma tumor cell.
Credit: University of Plymouth
New research published today, 10th July 2017, online in the journal Oncogene could offer hope to the thousands of, mainly young, people affected by the hereditary condition Neurofibromatosis 2 (NF2). This condition is characterised by the development of multiple tumours of the nervous system such as schwannomas, meningiomas and ependymomas, each associated with mutations in a gene coding for a tumour suppressor called Merlin.
In addition to NF2 disease there could be potential benefit for other cancers with the same mutations, including mesothelioma (usually linked to exposure to asbestos), breast cancer, colorectal carcinoma, melanoma, glioblastoma and spontaneous schwannomas and meningiomas occurring independently of NF2.
Scientists from the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, supported by The Laura Crane Youth Cancer Trust and Brain Tumour Research, have revealed the role of the normal, cellular form of prion protein (PrPC) in the development of NF2-related tumours.
PrPC is normally present in the nervous system of healthy individuals and is absent in Creutzfeldt-Jakob prion disease patients who have a pathological form of prion protein called scrapie prion protein (PrPSc). While physiological levels of PrPC are important during embryogenesis (the process by which the embryo develops and forms), and are neuro-protective in adults, highly increased concentrations were found in several cancers such as glioblastoma, breast cancer, prostate and gastric cancer.
Since all NF2 patients develop multiple schwannomas, the scientists have developed a human cell culture model for schwannoma, comprising of human schwannoma cells isolated from both patients and control normal healthy Schwann cells (which form the sheath that protects nerves). Using this model, the research team found for the first time that PrPC is over-produced in schwannoma compared with healthy Schwann cells. This overproduction is due to Merlin deficiency and strongly contributes to tumour growth and patient prognosis.
The research team have already identified a range of existing drugs which could manage this protein overproduction and that are used currently for other non-NF2-related conditions, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, multiple myeloma (a type of bone marrow cancer) and Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). By repurposing existing drugs, an effective therapy could be made available to NF2 patients, based on the failure of Merlin tumour suppressor expression, relatively quickly. The safety testing process for human use has already taken place for the original purpose of these drugs, which means they could be fast-tracked into clinical studies for NF2.
Director of the study was Dr Sylwia Ammoun, Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Neurobiology, who had crucial support from PhD student Lucy Provenzano. Both are members of Professor Oliver Hanemann’s internationally-recognised brain and nervous system cancer research team at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.
Dr Ammoun commented: “By understanding the relationship between overproduction of PrPC and Merlin deficiency in the development of schwannoma and meningioma, we have made a significant stride forward in the search for a drug treatment for NF2. This is a life-changing condition usually striking the young. That our discovery could also lead to hope for thousands of patients affected by other Merlin-deficient tumours, adds yet more to the significance and excitement of our findings.”
Pam Thornes, Trust Manager at The Laura Crane Youth Cancer Trust, said: “We are extremely proud to have funded such pioneering cancer research as carried out by Dr Ammoun and PhD student Lucy Provenzano and collaborators in the Professor Hanemann laboratory. Their fantastic work is going to make a life-changing difference to the lives of so many young cancer patients and that their discovery could also lead to hope for thousands of patients affected by other Merlin-deficient tumours adds yet more to the significance and excitement of their finding. The Laura Crane Youth Cancer Trust is delighted to have been able to play a part in making this research a reality.”
Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research at Brain Tumour Research said: “Identifying a range of existing drugs which could be repurposed is an exciting approach by which we can speed up the progress of scientific discovery from the lab to the clinic, without compromising safety. Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer, but lack of research funding over decades has meant that current treatments lag well behind those of leukaemia and many other cancers. We are having to play catch up to improve outcomes for patients and this study will bring us closer to identifying new and effective therapies”.
Cellular prion protein (PrPC) in the development of Merlindeficient tumours
L Provenzano , Y Ryan , DA Hilton , J Lyons-Rimmer , F Dave , EA Maze , CL Adams , R Rigby-Jones , S Ammoun and CO Hanemann
Notes to editors
NF2 affects one in 33,000 people. Symptoms (including hearing loss, tinnitus, problems with balance, facial paralysis, paralysis due to spinal tumours and life-threatening complications due to tumour locations adjacent to vital parts of the nervous system) typically appear in the late teens and early 20s, although they can occur at any age. NF2 tumours are generally benign yet they develop in large numbers and it is often their mass which causes potentially debilitating symptoms.
Currently treatment is limited to surgery and/or radiotherapy, both of which carry risks and are only partially effective. This new research may well be the first to bring a drug therapy to the range of treatments available.
About the University of Plymouth
The University of Plymouth is renowned for high quality, internationally-leading education, research and innovation.
With a mission to Advance Knowledge and Transform Lives, Plymouth is a top 50 research university with clusters of world class research across a wide range of disciplines including marine science and engineering, medicine, robotics and psychology. A twice winner of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education, the University of Plymouth continues to grow in stature and reputation.
It has a strong track record for teaching and learning excellence, and has one of the highest numbers of National Teaching Fellows of any UK university. With 21,000 students, and a further 17,000 studying for a Plymouth degree at partner institutions in the UK and around the world, and over 100,000 alumni pursuing their chosen careers globally, it has a growing global presence. http://www.plymouth.ac.uk
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About Brain Tumour Research:
Brain Tumour Research is the only national charity in the UK focused on funding sustainable research to find a cure for brain tumours. We are building a game-changing network of world-class Research Centres of Excellence in the UK. Embracing passionate member charities nationwide, £5.5 million was raised towards research and support during 2016.
We are campaigning to see the national spend on research into brain tumours increased to £30 – £35 million a year, in line with breast cancer and leukaemia. The charity is celebrating a year of high-profile campaigning on this issue following the unprecedented success of its petition in 2016. Following that, Brain Tumour Research is now taking a leading role in the Government’s Task and Finish Working Group convened to tackle the historic underfunding for research.
Key statistics on brain tumours:
- Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer
- They kill more children than leukaemia
- They kill more men under 45 than prostate cancer
- They kill more women under 35 than breast cancer
- Just 1% of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease
- In the UK 16,000 people each year are diagnosed with a brain tumour
- Less than 20% of those diagnosed with a brain tumour survive beyond five years compared with an average of 50% across all cancers
- Incidences of, and deaths from, brain tumours are increasing.
Please quote Brain Tumour Research as the source when using this information. Additional facts and statistics are available from our website including our latest Report on National Research Funding. We can also provide case-studies and research expertise for media.