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Zinc control could be path to breast cancer treatment

06 February 2012

The body’s control mechanisms for delivering zinc to cells could be key to improving treatment for some types of aggressive breast cancer.

New research by Cardiff University and King’s College London has identified the switch which releases zinc into cells, with important implications for a number of diseases.

Zinc has long been known to play a vital part in human health. Too much zinc, or too little, can cause cell death. A growing body of evidence links zinc to disease states including neurodegeneration, inflammation, diabetes and cancer.

Zinc levels in cells are controlled by protein molecules called zinc transporters. These move zinc in and out of the cell to ensure correct levels are maintained. Until now, scientists have not understood how the transporters release the zinc. The Cardiff and King’s research team have identified a switch, known as CK2, a protein which opens one transporter, called ZIP7, and allows the zinc to flow.

Earlier research by the team has already linked zinc delivery to types of breast cancer. Higher levels of intracellular zinc and the ZIP7 transporter were found in tamoxifen-resistant breast cancers. CK2 was also known to be more common in cancers which encourage cell growth. The discovery that CK2 opens ZIP7 suggests that drugs which block this release of zinc could also block cancer development. Early results from clinical trials of CK2 inhibitors suggest they are performing well.

Dr Kathryn Taylor, of Cardiff University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, said: "We know that zinc, in the right quantities, is vital for development, our immune systems and many other aspects of human health. But when something goes wrong with the body’s zinc delivery system, it looks as though disease can result. In particular, our research has shown a link to highly aggressive forms of breast cancer. Our better understanding of how exactly zinc is delivered suggests if we can block malfunctioning transporter channels, we can potentially halt the growth of these forms of cancer. We believe this makes zinc, and zinc delivery, a high priority for future cancer research."

Professor Christer Hogstrand from the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London, said: "Our discovery provides a mechanistic explanation for how the cell uses zinc to regulate different functions. The evidence that zinc is released on command in the cell and then regulates cellular processes seems to set it apart from other transition metals, such as copper and iron, in the way that it is used by the body. These findings should open the door for new research into the roles of zinc in health and disease."

The research, funded by a Wellcome Trust University Research Award to Dr Taylor, is published tomorrow (February 7) in the leading journal Science Signaling.

Notes to Editor

Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.

www.cardiff.ac.uk

King's College London

King's College London is one of the top 30 universities in the world (2011/12 QS World University Rankings), and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,500 students (of whom more than 9,000 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 6,000 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £450 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.

King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas', King's College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King's Health Partners. King's Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world's leading research-led universities and three of London's most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit: www.kingshealthpartners.org.

The Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk

For more information, please contact:

Dr Kathryn Taylor,

Breast Cancer Molecular Pharmacology Group,

Welsh School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences,

Cardiff University,

Tel: +44 (0)29 208 75292/5226
Email: Taylorkm@cardiff.ac.uk

Dr Peter Kille,
Cardiff School of Biosciences (BIOSI 1),
Cardiff University,
Tel: +44 (0)29 20874507
Email: Kille@cardiff.ac.uk

Professor Christer Hogstrand

Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division

School of Medicine

King’s College London

Tel: +44 (0)207 848 4436

Email: christer.hogstrand@kcl.ac.uk

Stephen Rouse,

Public Relations Office,

Cardiff University

Tel: +44 (0)29 208 75596

Email: RouseS@cardiff.ac.uk

Emma Reynolds

Press Officer (Health and Society)

King’s College, London

Tel: +44 (0)207 8484334

Email: emma.reynolds@kcl.ac.uk