A new molecule discovered by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA), may help prevent lung cancer. The molecule in question helps maintain a healthy balance of cells in airway and lung tissue. These findings were published in the journal Cell on Tuesday.
Every 2.3 minutes a new lung cancer diagnosis is made. Nearly 60 to 65 percent of lung cancer diagnoses are among people who have never smoked or are former smokers. It is also important to note that 15 percent of new lung cancer cases are among never-smokers. So, it is important to maintain lung health. This molecule can be an effective intervention that may prevent any future diagnosis of lung cancer in people.
Dr. Brigitte Gomperts, the lead author and a UCLA professor of pediatrics and of pulmonary medicine, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, agrees. She explained that this may lead to a potential therapy that will help promote lung airway health. She added, “This could not only inform the treatment of lung cancer but help prevent its progression in the first place.”
The National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, the Broad Stem Cell Research Center Training Program, and the Rose Hills Foundation Graduate Scholarship funded the study.
It is important to understand the human respiratory system to fully grasp the function of this molecule. Human respiratory tract is always under attack by microorganisms and pollution. This leads to cell being injured in the tract. Human body then replenishes these cells by producing more stem cells and mucociliary cells in airways and lungs. This process is controlled by airway basal stem cells.
The airway system is kept healthy by a balance between mucociliary cells and basal stem cells. Mucociliary cells are divided into two types: ciliated and mucus cells. Ciliated cells sweep the mucus away from respiratory system and the mucus cells trap toxic and infectious particles.
If and when cancer develops, this fine balance is disrupted and the body produces too many stem cells and fewer mucociliary cells. This gives rise to a greater risk of developing a tumor and eventual cancer.
In this study the researchers took samples from healthy individuals, individuals with premalignant lung cancer lesions, and individuals with squamous lung cancer. They observed that a group of molecules known as the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway, was present at different levels in sick individuals compared to healthy people.
Scientists then recreated this scenario in mice. Same phenomenon happened and these molecules in healthy and sick mice’s airway basal cell altered, same as in the human patients. When the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway was activated, the basal stem cells kept on dividing.
Gomperts and her team then started screening more than 20,000 compounds to find ones that may reverse this imbalance, and they found one. The compound named Wnt Inhibitor Compound 1 or WIC1, limited the increase of basal stem cells and restored the balance of the stem cells and mucociliary cells to normal. The compound was also less toxic than other compounds of similar nature that block Wnt/beta-catenin signaling.
However, since the researchers found the compound through a general screening and not a targeted study, the exact mechanism with which it acts is yet to be understood. Gomperts and her team are planning further research projects to study this compound in greater detail. The team has also filed an application to patent this new compound. The molecule is not yet approved by FDA for use in humans.