"The aggregate is a large substructure that imposes some kind of curvature on the membrane that is really the major observation," said lead researcher Alemayehu Gorfe from the University of Texas Health Science Centre at Houston, US.

The researchers created coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations of the Ras protein. More than one-third of all human cancers are associated with somatic or post-conception mutations in Ras proteins.

"Mutations on one of the Ras proteins, Kristen or K-Ras, are responsible for 90 percent or more of pancreatic cancer cases," Gorfe said.

"It tells you that it is a very, very important anti-cancer drug target," he added.

Scientists today have little understanding of how or what happens when Ras proteins form small, nano-sized clusters on the membrane.

"It is these nanoclusters, these transient substructures on the cell membrane that assemble and disassemble quickly, that are involved in signal transmission," Gorfe said.

Gorfe's computer simulations showed Ras proteins cluster together, or form aggregates, on the cell membrane. And this led him to question what they might do there. Ras acts like a switch that must be turned on for cells to reproduce. The problem is that when Ras genes get mutated, that switch just would not turn off, and that leads to out of control cell growth.

The study was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.


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