Seven proteins that can help physicians evaluate how aggressive a patient’s cancer is and whether or not they should receive chemotherapy have been identified by German researchers.

Using a strategy similar to Google’s PageRank algorithm, the researchers from Dresden University of Technology, Germany, were able to rank around 20,000 proteins by their genetic relevance to the progression of pancreatic cancer. The study is published in PLoS Computational Biology.

The team used their own version of the Google algorithm in order to identify new biomarkers, which are molecules produced by cancer cells. Although biomarkers can help physicians detect cancer earlier, they are often difficult to find and time consuming. In addition, biomarkers found in different studies for the same types of cancer almost never overlap.

However, the team was able to avoid this problem by using the Google strategy. The researchers made use of the fact that proteins in a cell are linked via a network of physical and regulatory interactions; the ‘protein Facebook’ so to speak.

Christof Winter explained:

“Once we added the network information in our analysis, our biomarkers became more reproducible.”

Using the Google algorithm and this network information the researchers found a considerable overlap with a previous study from the University of North Carolina. In this overlap, the researchers were able to identify a protein which can evaluate aggressiveness in pancreatic cancer.

Before these new biomarkers can be used in clinical practice they need to be validated in a larger follow-up study. However, one problem remains – how to turn these insights into new medications which slow down cancer progression. A clinical trial on a pancreas cancer drug is currently being conducted by the team together with the Dresden-based biotech company RESprotect.

Written By Grace Rattue