CU researchers discover a new approach to curing cancer

BioFrontiers scientists at CU, Thomas Cech and Leslie Leinwand, have found a new approach to anti-cancer drug development.

The researchers collaborated to find a patch of amino acids that, if blocked by a drug docked onto the chromosome end of that location, could prevent cancerous cells from reproducing.

(Josh Shettler/CU Independent Illustration)

“This is an exciting scientific discovery that gives us a new way of looking at the problem of cancer,” Cech said in the news release. “What is amazing is that changing a single amino acid in the TEL patch stops the growth of telomeres. We are a long way from a drug solution for cancer, but this discovery gives us a different and hopefully more effective target.”

Telomeres are constructed of repetitive nucleotide sequences which protect the ends of the chromosomes from deteriorating or fusing with neighboring chromosome ends. An enzyme called telomerase is responsible for replenishing the telomeres.

According to a university news release, the amount of this enzyme is a crucial part of the body’s function. Too little telomerase can cause diseases of bone marrow, lungs and skin while too much of it results in cells that over proliferate. Telomerase activation is estimated to be a contributor in up to 90 percent of human cancers.

Nicholas Zaleski, a 26-year-old doing post-baccalaureate work in MCD biology, volunteers at Denver Health in the chemo infusion center and is excited to see a new target for an anti-cancer drug.

“It would really bring down the severity of the issue,” Zaleski said. “Cancer would eventually become the next bacterial infection. Just like with any ailment or disease of the past, those were once lethal, but now we have drugs that treat these ailments right on the spot.”

Cancer is abnormal cell growth which is caused by damage to crucial genes that are necessary for the survival, growth and multiplication of a cell’s proteins.

It begins when one cell starts to grow and multiply too much, causing tumors which can damage the body by putting too much pressure on vital parts. More serious tumors can invade surrounding body tissue by traveling through the bloodstream.

Cech is the director of the BioFrontiers Institute, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Leinwand is the chief scientific officer of the BioFrontiers Institute and a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Co-authors on the study include postdoctoral fellows Jayakrishnan Nandakumar and Ina Weidenfeld; University of Colorado undergraduate student Caitlin Bell; and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Senior Scientist Arthur Zaug.

The BioFrontiers Institute was founded to advance human health and welfare, educate a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists and expand Colorado’s leadership in biotechnology.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alexandria Aguerre at

CU Independent

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