Laboratory studies revealed an increased presence of the protein in human bowel cancer tumour cells compared with normal tissue.
The protein, called beta-1,4-galactosyltransferase-V (beta-1,4-GalT-V), was more active in bowel cancer tumour cells and there was an increased presence of the fat which the protein produces, called lactosylceramide.
Lactosylceramide can manufacture 'superoxides' which lead to an increase in new cells and blood vessels that cancers use to spread.
By inhibiting the protein and preventing the production of lactosylceramide, investigators were able to stop the growth and spread of bowel cancer cells.
Lactosylceramide joins a growing list of biomarkers (including NMT1, APC, and TP53) which can indicate bowel and other cancers when detected in blood tests. Investigators hope blood tests which can identify biomarkers will enable earlier detection of cancer, when it is easier to treat.
"If you treat these cells with a drug that targets beta-1,4GalT-V, it will go and attack the endothelial cells that have this protein, and hopefully it will neutralize their activity," said Chatterjee, the study’s lead author.
Although the investigators were encouraged by the study findings, there is still much more work to be done before their discoveries will enter the clinic.
In the meantime, Bowel Cancer Australia encourages people to be bowel cancer aware.
The results of the research were published online in the Nov. 28 issue of the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.
The study was supported by a grant from The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under grant number P01-HL-107153-01.
Co-authors were Jennifer Hou, Veera Venkata Ratnam Bandaru, Abul Ala Syed Rifat Mannan and Rajni Sharma of Johns Hopkins; and Maryam Kherad Pezhouh of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.