an anticancer protein’s chequered past and promising future


Cartoon characterizing p53 as a masked superhero

Illustration: Andrew Khosravani

When scientists first got here throughout p53 in 1979, it was an intriguing however not Earth-shattering discovery. Six teams independently found a mobile protein with a molecular weight of roughly 53 kilodaltons — therefore the title. It appeared that p53 was interacting with a tumour-inducing virus referred to as simian virus 40, and researchers quickly confirmed that wholesome cells pressured to precise this newly cloned gene encoding p53 shortly turned cancerous1.

However the fact was extra difficult. As extra researchers started to review p53, it turned obvious that the tumour-causing variations of the gene have been really mutated. The unmutated, or wild-type, model of the gene, which was cloned from people and mice within the Eighties, exerted the precise reverse impact: the gene acted as a potent inhibitor of tumorigenesis2. Scientists had even bought its measurement flawed; p53’s true molecular weight is nearer to 44 kilodaltons.

Within the three a long time since researchers got here to this realization, p53’s organic significance has develop into ever extra obvious. The protein coordinates a variety of important mobile capabilities, and its evolutionary historical past dates again to among the earliest multicellular life on Earth. More often than not, p53 is stored in an inhibited state at low ranges within the cell till it’s required. Environmental stress, irregular metabolic exercise, genetic harm and superior ageing can all set off the protein’s activation, enabling p53 to instantly regulate the expression of tons of of genes to provoke an applicable response.

Some mobile crises may be minor, requiring a response centered on restore to revive mobile operate. Catastrophic issues, nevertheless, may lead a cell to self-destruct to stop additional hurt.

These capabilities make p53 an important defence towards organic and environmental insults that may give rise to most cancers, main some individuals to dub the protein ‘the guardian of the genome’. As demonstrated by these early research of mutant types of the TP53 gene, mutations that intervene with the operate of p53 are well-known drivers of most cancers. Roughly half of all cancers are related to p53 mutations3, and almost 90% of individuals born with such mutations — a uncommon hereditary situation generally known as Li–Fraumeni Syndrome — will develop most cancers of their lifetime. And even when p53 itself stays intact, different elements can hold it shackled and go away cells inclined to tumorigenesis.

Regardless of a formidable file of analysis into the operate of p53 and its myriad mutants, there are nonetheless no accepted medication that may selectively goal the p53 pathway in most cancers. However there are some promising avenues of assault, together with molecules that neutralize the disruptive results of particular p53 mutations or that counteract the extreme inhibition of p53 seen in some tumours. Additional advances in these and different therapeutic approaches — and the identification of well-chosen mixture therapies — might in the end result in a significant victory towards a broad vary of tumour varieties.

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