"Bad guy" protein may be "good guy" at fighting cancer

It might be the “bad guy” when it comes to the role it plays in preventing the breakdown of blood clots, but a protein called TAFI might be just the fix scientists are looking for to prevent the spread of cancer cells.

“It’s the spreading that’s really the most dangerous part of cancer,” said Michael Boffa, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Most people who die of cancer, die from the metastasis, or the spreading rather than the original tumour.”

One of four UWindsor scientists to receive a start-up last week grant from the local Seeds4Hope foundation, Dr. Boffa normally studies the role that TAFI plays in preventing the breakdown of blood clots that can so often lead to strokes and heart attacks.

However, through discussions with other UWindsor cancer researchers, he began to wonder if the same protein that prevents blood clots from breaking down might also inhibit the metastasis of cancer cells.

Boffa, who will appear today on CJAM 99.1 FM to discuss his research, said cancer cells like to escape from their original tumour site and then move through the tissues. If they happen to encounter a blood vessel, they can actually penetrate it, which allows them to be transported around the body, he said.

Proteases, meanwhile, are enzymes that are like “molecular scissors” which chew their way through other cells and allow cancer cells to escape in the first place, he added.

“Blood clots are like protein masses, but proteases chew through them and allow blood to flow again, but TAFI stops that from happening,” he said. “So it was perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that if TAFI could prevent blood clot breakdown, it could also prevent the kind of proteolysis that would allow cancer cells to migrate.”

Boffa said the research funding he received is critical for doing the kind of fundamental research he needs to do to prove the principle, which could ultimately lead to increased funding to expand the program and conduct further study.

Ultimately he hopes the research will lead to therapies that would heighten the activity of TAFI, provided it can be proven to effectively prevent the spread of cancer cells.

Boffa will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that showcases the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.