After a decade of research, scientists believe that they have discovered a protein that protects against both cancer and aging. The best part is that the protein, called BubR1, has no apparent downside. Though the protein is still a mystery in some ways, the early findings have led to quite a bit of excitement in the scientific community.
Aneuploidic cells are when cells have too few or too many chromosomes. Cancer cells nearly always fall into this category, though researchers remain unclear about the exact cause and effect relationship. BubR1, the protein in question, helps cells properly separate their chromosomes when they divide. If the amount of BubR1 is off, daughter cells can have the wrong number of chromosomes.
In a study published in a recent issue of Nature Cell Biology, researchers found that mice that have been genetically engineered to produce too much BubR1 seem to have an increased protection against cancer. The mice were exposed to a chemical that causes lung and skin cancer. If the mice were not genetically engineered, all of them developed cancer. In the genetically engineered mice, only a third developed the disease.
The mice were not only protected against cancer, but they developed cancer later than the controls. Two years into the study, 15 percent of the genetically engineered mice had cancer; 40 percent of the controls did as well. The genetically engineered mice also lived 15 percent longer than the controls and turned into miniature Olympians, running twice as far on a treadmill than the controls.
In addition, last year, a study attempted to study the opposite phenomenon. Jan van Deursen, a cancer biologist at the Mayo Clinic, and his colleagues set out to study the relationship between chromosomes and cancer. They specially engineered mice in the laboratory to have less BubR1. They thought that the mice would be at increased risk for cancer, but instead found that these mice simply aged really quickly.
However, before we clamor for pills that increase BubR1 in our own bodies to slow aging and stop cancer, researchers must better understand the protein. Results with animals have been mixed. Christina Montagna, a molecular geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said to ScienceNow that when they conducted the same experiment as Deursen, the mice had more tumors, not fewer. One possibility remains that both very low aneuploidy may protect against cancer, because aneuplodic cells are so damaged that they cannot quickly divide.