Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago have described a new role for cholesterol in the activation of a cellular signaling pathway that has been associated with cancer.

"Our research points to a new regulatory role for cholesterol. It also presents an exciting new therapeutic target for suppressing a key cell signaling pathway to treat or prevent cancer," explained principal investigator Wonhwa Cho, a professor of chemistry at University of Illinois.

Cells employ thousands of signaling pathways to conduct their functions.

‘Canonical Wnt’ signaling is a pathway that promotes cell growth and division and is most active in embryonic cells during development.

Overactivity of this signaling pathway in mature cells is thought to be a major driver in the development of cancer. Cho and his colleagues discovered a binding site for cholesterol on a protein called ‘Dishevelled’.

‘Dishevelled’ is involved in ‘canonical Wnt’ signaling that plays a role in processes like cell movement and organization.

The researchers found that when cholesterol is bound to ‘Dishevelled’, the signal continues along the canonical Wnt signaling pathway. Without cholesterol, the signaling cannot occur.

"Our research provides a mechanism for how cholesterol promotes pathways that lead to cancer," Cho noted.

"A drug that interferes with the binding of cholesterol to Dishevelled, may be effective against cancers that are driven by canonical Wnt signaling,” Cho said.

Such cancers include colon cancer, melanoma, breast cancer and lung cancer. The findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications.


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