UNE wins grant for international cancer research project

Published 12 November 2008

cellmodel.jpgThe University of New England has won a $252,000 grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for an investigation of a protein that suppresses the growth of cancers.

Dr Pierre Moens, the project’s chief investigator at UNE, is an expert in the use of fluorescent markers to track the movements of individual molecules within living cells. His collaborators on the project, titled “Profilin: a novel target for cancer therapy”, are scientists based in the United States and Denmark, as well as in Australia.

Dr Moens explained that profilin, a protein present in every cell of the human body, is found at lower than normal levels in breast cancer cells. “And if you increase the expression of profilin to above-normal levels, you reduce the aggressiveness of the cancer,” he said. “For this reason, profilin molecules are an outstanding candidate as a target for cancer therapy.”

“We believe that the tumour-suppressing effect is due to the interaction of profilin molecules with the cell membrane,” he continued. “Our immediate aim is to understand the basic mechanism underlying this effect. After that, it could be possible to develop cancer therapies specifically targeting profilin molecules – therapies so specific that they would have very few side effects.”

In 2005, with the help of a grant from the Australian Research Council, UNE acquired a technologically advanced instrument – a spectrofluorometer – for the detection of fluorescence at the molecular level. Working in UNE’s Centre for Bioactive Discovery in Health and Ageing, Dr Moens has developed an international reputation for his work in this field. Attaching light-emitting molecules (“fluorophores”) to profilin molecules, he is able to study their movement within a solution. “And,” he said, “with the help of a confocal microscope acquired by UNE last year, we’re able to look at the three-dimensional picture.”

One of Dr Moens’s colleagues on the project – Professor Enrico Gratton from the University of California, Irvine, in the United States – is a world leader in fluorescence methodology and instrumentation. Professor Gratton has developed methods of observing clusters of molecules and counting the molecules in such clusters. His work will be an essential component of the project.

Along with Dr Moens and Professor Gratton, the project’s other chief investigators are Dr Partha Roy from the University of Pittsburgh, USA, Professor Glenn King from the University of Queensland, and Professor Luis Bagatolli from the University of Southern Denmark. Dr Roy is an expert in controlling the expression of profilin within living cells, Professor King will be using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to map the area of interaction between profilin molecules and the cell membrane, and Professor Bagatolli will be studying the mechanical characteristics of the membrane where this interaction occurs.

In awarding the research grant, the NHMRC commended the three-year project for its “clarity of design” and the fact that it “addresses an issue of considerable importance to human health”.

THE IMAGE of a cell membrane model (“giant unilaminar vesicle”) displayed here expands to show Dr Pierre Moens investigating cell membrane / profilin molecule interactions.