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Spider silk could be the key to curing cancer

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Most cancers develop from a lack of the protein P53, which plays a crucial role in preventing cells with DNA damage from becoming cancer cells. A similar protein could be extracted from the silk produced by spiders and incorporated into human cells, obtaining a protective function against the development of tumors.

A new study carried out by a group of researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has made it possible to identify a protein present in the spider silk which would have a similar capacity to the P53 protein, which in humans has the ability to inhibit the development of cancer cells. As a large part of the varieties of cancer could be stopped by increasing the production of P53 in the body, the finding in spider silk is a hope for the future, in terms of the design of new treatments against one of the diseases with the greatest global impact .

Spider silk is made up of a protein fiber, naturally spun by these amazing arthropods. They use it to develop hunting nets or spider webs, nests, protection for their eggs and even to transport themselves through the air, almost as if they had the ability to fly. According to new research, recently published in the journal Structure, spider silk could also help humans combat one of the pathologies that generates the highest number of deaths per year worldwide: cancer.

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Guardians of the genome

According to a press release, the p53 protein it protects our cells from cancer and is an interesting target for new treatments. However, the problem is that it breaks down quickly: spider silk can stabilize this protein, starting from a similar component that would have the ability to “complement” human protein.

The P53 protein has been named “guardian of the genome”, because it manages to prevent DNA-damaged cells from turning into cancer cells. Mutations of the p53 gene are known to be found in more than 60% of all cancerous tumors, thus becoming the most common genetic modification in cancer.

Therefore, if it were possible to control this protein and somehow generate greater stability to prevent its decline in the human body, a great step towards new effective cancer treatments would be taken. It would be a previous step to the design of a cancer vaccine based on mRNA or messenger RNA, that is, the ribonucleic acid that transfers the genetic code from DNA and works as a template to synthesize proteins. However, scientists know that before this can be achieved, it is essential to know how the P53 protein is handled in cells and whether large amounts of it can be toxic.

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fusion protein

According to an article signed in The Conversation by the research leader, Michael Landreh, scientists attached in laboratory experiments a small section of a spider silk protein, called “domain”, to the human p53 protein. By entering this “fusion protein” in cells, they found that they produced the protein in very large quantities.

They then analyzed the protein with electron microscopy, computer simulations and other technologies, to identify where the different parts of the protein are located and how they work together. They found that the most flexible part of the p53 protein was wrapped around the “domain” from spider silk: by capturing and separating this most unstable part of the cellular machinery, the protein was enhanced and multiplied its production.

Although the researchers clarified that none of their findings so far amount to a new cancer therapy, they did stress that they open up new possibilities for design mechanisms that make the p53 protein less flexible and easier to produce. Going forward, they will seek to confirm whether healthy human cells tolerate spider silk proteins and whether adding them extends the lifespan of the p53 protein within cells.

Reference

A “spindle and thread” mechanism unblocks p53 translation by modulating N-terminal disorder. Margit Kaldmäe, Michael Landreh et al. Structure (2022). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.str.2022.02.013

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