At first, scientist Hong Chen didn't believe the results.
“When they showed me the results, I said, ‘Are you guys nuts?'” Chen said.
Chen and a group of researchers at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation recently made a discovery that could lead to new or better therapies in cancer treatment.
Their discovery relates to how cancer tumors grow in the body.
Tumors are similar to plants, in that they need a variety of nutrients to grow, according to the medical research foundation. Where plants use roots to draw water and minerals from the soil, cancers use blood vessels to deliver the nourishment needed to expand, according to the foundation.
Epsins are proteins that regulate the formation of blood vessels. Researchers in Chen's lab removed epsins from the system, which meant the blood vessels could grow uninhibited around the tumor, without epsins to regulate their formation.
When the researchers removed epsins, they expected to see unrestricted blood vessel growth and large, aggressive tumors, according to the research foundation.
But they found the opposite — there were tumors that hadn't grown, had shrunk or, in some cases, had disappeared.
“In the absence of epsins, several blood vessels were made, but the tumors were smaller,” said OMRF researcher Satish Pasula in a news release.
“When we looked closer, we noticed that the blood vessels didn't function properly.”
The research was done using mice bred without epsins and also using human cells in a Petri dish.
The research is far from over, but it is a step that could lead to some interesting new therapies, Chen said.
For example, if doctors could slow or stop a cancer tumor from growing, it could mean more time to treat the patient. It could also mean less of a chance the tumor would continue to grow and damage the body.
“Obviously, we don't want cancers growing large, so we are trying to better understand the mechanics of angiogenesis — the creation of blood vessels — which led us to experiment with epsins,” Chen said in a news release.
The initial findings give a better understanding of the role epsins play. With a tumor, there's a higher density of epsins than in the rest of the body, Chen said.
The next step could be creating a drug that suppresses the creation of epsins.
Chen said it's a promising first step that could lead to better treatments and outcomes for cancer patients.