Biochemistry professor Tansey discovers protein that could melt tumors

The discovery of MYC-HCF1 interactions may lead to a future tumor-shrinking treatment.

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Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), pictured above, manages more than 2 million patients each year and is one of the largest academic medical centers in the Southeast, according to its website. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

Jake Schenthal, Staff Writer

On Jan. 8, a study published in the journal “eLIFE” by Vanderbilt professor of biochemistry and cell and developmental biology, Dr. William Tansey, detailed the discovery of a genetic mutation that can be applied to shrink tumors quite quickly.

The protein, called MYC, is used by animals and humans alike for cell division and cell growth, which also allows tumor cells to rapidly expand. Tumors typically form when cells no longer have control of their growth, and MYC often enables cells to grow out of control, creating tumors. When Tansey and colleagues discovered a particular mutation that blocks the interaction between MYC and another protein, Host Cell Factor-1 (HCF1), tumors rapidly shrunk. 

The next step, according to Tansey, is to identify certain molecules that are able to bind to HCF1 to prevent it from interacting with MYC. 

“Now that we know what we have to go after, the question is if we can do this beneficially and safely,” Tansey said.

If molecules that bind to HCF1 are able to be identified, clinical trials could begin within the next decade for a potential tumor-melting clinical drug in the distant future, according to Tansey. However, the process is often long, and it may take years before this discovery is manifested into a drug, per Tansey. 

“If you had a molecule that was able to bind to HCF1 and prevent it from being touched by MYC, then that could form the basis of a future anti-cancer drug,” Tansey said. 

This discovery is the second time that a cancer-treating drug was discovered at Vanderbilt. In 2015, Vanderbilt professor of biochemistry, pharmacology and chemistry, Stephen Fesik, alongside Tansey, discovered a protein named WDR5 that similarly halts interactions with MYC. WDR5 is expected to be in clinical trials shortly, and is currently supported by the National Cancer Institute’s Experimental Therapeutics Program, according to Tansey. 

“We are looking for something that will treat pre-existing tumors, and it seems as if this discovery could lead down that path,” Tansey said.