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NEW ORLEANS — A major breakthrough in genetic research conducted at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine and Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center could pave the way for preventing cancer relapses and metastasis of certain types of cancer.

According to a news release from LSU Health Sciences, the research demonstrated for the first time that a novel protein can cause normal cells in the lining of the colon to become malignant, grow and spread, as well as take on the characteristics of stem cells.

This protein – SATB2 – is also found in “cancer stem cells” — or cancer cells that behave like stem cells.

Cancer stem cells are a small subset of immortal cells in tumors that are not only capable of renewing themselves, but also giving rise to other cells needed by the tumors to survive and grow. These cells are more resistant than typical cancer cells to standard chemotherapeutic agents and can persist in the body even after treatment.

The cancer stem cells are thought to be a major cause of treatment failure, disease relapse and metastasis. Certain signals can turn a regular cancer cell into a cancer stem cell, making it resistant to treatment.

SATB2 appears to be a master regulator of that process, controlling several of the mechanisms involved.

Researchers found that while SATB2 is not active in normal colorectal tissue, it is highly active in colorectal cancer cells.

Their research concluded that silencing SATB2 in the colorectal cancer cells not only suppressed cell growth, motility and colony formation, but the characteristics of cancer stem cells were absent.

This means that if agents are identified that can block SATB2, they may be used, along with standard of care, to prevent cancer relapses and metastasis.

“Importantly, SATB2 is present not only in colon cancer, but in other cancers as well,” said Dr. Sharmila Shankar, PhD, Associate Professor of Genetics at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine and Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center.

According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer represents 8% of all new cancer cases in the US, with 135,430 new cases and 50,260 deaths expected this year. In 2014, there were an estimated 1,317,247 people living with colorectal cancer in the United States.

The research on SABT2 was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and a VA Merit Award to Dr. Shankar, who is also a senior scientist at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Healthcare System.

The authors conclude that while their research suggests an oncogenic role of SATB2 in colorectal cancer initiation, progression and metastasis, future studies in transgenic mice are needed to confirm their results.