The researchers identified more than 100 of the proteins modified by NMT - many of which were previously undiscovered - by analyzing living human cancer cells.
The enzyme, called N-myristoyltransferase (NMT), is known to modify a number of proteins in the human body that encourage disease development.
In this study, researchers identified more than 100 of the proteins modified by NMT - many of which were previously undiscovered - by analyzing living human cancer cells. They then mapped these proteins before finding a molecule that stops NMT from modifying them, paving the way for a potential new drug to treat cancer.
Lead study author Professor Ed Tate, of the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, and his team publish their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
Their findings are the result of many years spent developing tools that allow them to analyze NMT and the proteins they interfere with, according to the team.
Findings 'a really exciting step forward'
First of all, they conducted a large-scale study to identify the proteins affected by NMT. After finding more than 100 of these proteins, they came across a molecule that blocks NMT's activity.
To assess the effects of the NMT-inhibiting molecule, they triggered apoptosis - the process by which a cell is programmed to die after its DNA has suffered damage. The team explains that for chemotherapy to work in cancer patients, apoptosis needs to happen. However, the process is often disbanded in those whose cancer becomes resistant to drugs.
The researchers say that previously, only a few proteins controlled by NMT had been identified. But this study has discovered many more, shedding light on new strategies that stop cancer cells from becoming resistant to drugs.
Commenting on their findings, Prof. Tate says:
"We now have a much fuller picture of how NMT operates, and more importantly how it can be inhibited, than ever before. This is the first time that we have been able to look in molecular detail at how this potential drug target works within an entire living cancer cell, so this is a really exciting step forward for us.
This 'global map' allows us to understand what the effects of inhibiting NMT will be. This means we can determine which diseases it might be possible to combat by targeting NMT, enabling us a next step to explore how effective such treatments could be."
He adds that the team is already planning to test a drug that blocks the activity of NMT and stops it from modifying proteins.
"We are still at an early stage in our research but we have already identified several very potent drug-like NMT inhibitors that are active in animal disease models, and we hope to move towards clinical trials over the next 5-10 years."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study from the University of Leicester in the UK, in which researchers discovered "designer proteins" that they say could lead to the development of drugs that treat Alzheimer's and cancer.