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University researchers have employed a novel method to study Pannexin 1, a recently discovered protein that scientists believe may play a role in the spread of cancer. In an article published Jan. 20 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, a team of researchers — consisting of Brian Bao MD'13, associate professor of medical science Jeffrey Morgan and collaborators at the University of British Columbia — used a 3-D system to study cells without their supporting environments.

In previous in vitro studies, scientists could often only observe single flattened-out cells in petri dishes. The 3-D technology allows scientists to observe how multiple cells interact with each other rather than with their environments, giving researchers a more realistic method for simulating the human body.

The team discovered Pannexin 1 was implicated in the process of binding cells together. When cells come into contact with each other, Pannexin 1 channels open and cause the cell to release the energy molecule ATP, which binds to specific receptors on other cells, triggering an increase in calcium ion concentrations and inducing changes in the cell's structural proteins. This ultimately causes the cells to bind together even more strongly.

While each of this mechanism's steps had been studied individually, this study was the first to relate all of them to Pannexin 1, said Bao, the study's lead author. 

These results could potentially impact how researchers study cancer. Cancerous cells are often bound less tightly, which some scientists believe may play a role in how the cancer spreads to other areas of the body.

"Further down the road, this could have serious implications in (studying) tumor genesis," said Gerhard Dahl, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Bao's next steps include looking into how Pannexin 1 affects a cancer tumor's ability to spread. While the study represents a positive development, it is just one step in a much larger process that will involve many other researchers, he said. "Cancer is an immensely complex phenomenon that ultimately requires a multi-faceted approach among a community of scientists," Bao wrote in an email to The Herald.



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