Gaining insights into cancer control from rodents
Breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer are often found in unexpected places. For example, a long-living, cancer-resistant rodent called the naked mole rat may hold clues to new cancer prevention and treatment strategies.
The reason that naked mole rats seem to be virtually cancer-proof may stem from the high levels of a jelly-like substance called hyaluronan in their bodies. The large hyaluronan molecules surround cells and may protect them from becoming cancerous. Hyaluronan is found in all animals, including humans. It helps to lubricate joints and is an essential component in skin and cartilage.
Dr Barbara Triggs-Raine, a biochemist and professor at the University of Manitoba, is one of the few researchers worldwide that are focused on the role of enzymes that break down hyaluronan in cancer and other genetic disorders.
With the support of the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Triggs-Raine is studying whether interfering with an enzyme that breaks down hyaluronan called HYAL2 could be an effective strategy to raise hyaluronan levels to prevent or treat cancer. It is equally important to identify any unintended consequences or side effects that could be expected if HYAL2 is blocked.
To address these questions, Dr Triggs-Raine and her team are studying the effects of removing HYAL2 in mice. Their experiments should allow them to see whether this leads to increases in hyaluronan levels in various tissues and whether this can reduce the severity of skin cancers.
This research could establish HYAL2 as a promising therapeutic target in cancer, paving the way for the development of HYAL2 blockers to prevent cancer in high-risk individuals and to slow the growth of cancer if it occurs. This innovative idea is Dr Triggs-Raine’s first project dedicated to cancer research, exemplifying how the Society funds the best scientists in multidisciplinary fields to drive progress in achieving our mission.