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31st January 2020 Latest News Bowel Cancer

ROCKing the protein that accelerates bowel cancer

Assoc Professor Michael Samuel

Understanding a protein called ROCK could be the key to beating bowel cancer.

This is the story of a protein called ROCK*.

It’s a protein that lives inside all of us. On a normal day, it goes about its business, performing its normal healthy duties in our bodies. You probably didn’t even know it existed. But researchers have discovered something curious about ROCK: in bowel cancers, ROCK goes into overdrive, accelerating the spread and growth of the disease.

That’s why our researchers are keen to learn more about ROCK-induced tumour progression, with the hope that we can slow down and even beat bowel cancer for good.

Leading this life-changing work is Associate Professor Michael Samuel of the Centre for Cancer Biology (an alliance between the University of South Australia and SA Pathology), with backing from The Hospital Research Foundation and private donors, The VONBRI Foundation.

So how does it all work?

When a tumour converts from benign to malignant, this is referred to as tumour progression. The cancer will start sending and receiving chemical signals with its surrounding environment – in this case the bowel – and this communication is needed for cancer to be able to spread.

“We know that one such communication pathway is controlled by ROCK. As the tumour progresses, ROCK progressively increases too,” says A/Prof Samuel.

“Our hypothesis is that ROCK activity within intestinal tumours accelerates the progression of the disease by influencing how cancers communicate with their environment, and our research will be testing to see if this is true.”

Now it might seem that by eliminating ROCK and cutting the lines of communication between tumour and bowel, we can stop cancer from spreading altogether. But it’s not that straightforward.

“In a practical sense, it is difficult to stop ROCK entirely as it’s required in other parts of the body, but if we can target the ROCK inhibition specifically to the tumour, we may be able to halt bowel cancer progression,” says A/Prof Samuel.

In pre-clinical trials – which have now resumed after a brief COVID-19 delay – researchers will study what happens in environments that have ROCK activated and those that do not, using microscopy to observe cell movement and tumour changes in real time.

They will also take a close look at ROCK’s ‘neighbours’.

“We want to establish whether proteins that interact with ROCK in bowel cancers cause disease progression. If so, we will look to inhibit these proteins as a way of stopping ROCK from carrying out its tumour-specific functions in bowel cancer,” says A/Prof Samuel.

The Hospital Research Foundation is excited to support this innovative research in our ongoing fight to improve lives for South Australians and overcome one of our biggest enemies. Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer, and we now know that bowel cancer is on the rise in younger adults. ROCK levels are also found to be higher in invasive breast cancer, a type of skin cancer and pancreatic cancer – giving hope that an inhibitor could also help those suffering from other cancer types.

“We can’t treat effectively what we don’t understand, that’s why understanding bowel cancer is vital to finding new approaches to treat it. We are very thankful to the VONBRI Foundation and The Hospital Research Foundation for allowing us to continue this fight,” says A/Prof Samuel.

*ROCK stands for Rho-associated protein kinases, which are enzymes that control the shape and movement of cells within the body.