Public Release: 

New insight into a fragile protein linked to cancer and autism

American Chemical Society

In recent years, scientists have found a surprising a connection between some people with autism and certain cancer patients: They have mutations in the same gene, one that codes for a protein critical for normal cellular health. Now scientists have reported in the ACS journal Biochemistry that the defects reduce the activity and stability of the protein. Their findings could someday help lead to new treatments for both sets of patients.

Ronald T. Raines and Sean B. Johnston explain that a small subgroup of people with autism and many patients with uninherited cancers have abnormalities in the genetic blueprint for a protein called PTEN. This protein helps promote genetic stability, repair DNA and regulate cell growth. Glitches in these processes can lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation and disease. But researchers have yet to fully understand how defective versions of the protein contribute to the development of autism and cancer. Raines and Johnston wanted to flesh out a piece of that puzzle.

In the lab, the researchers tested PTEN proteins from patients with three different kinds of cancer and from patients with PTEN-related autism spectrum disorders. They found that the compromised proteins, particularly from the cancer patients, easily lost their shape and couldn't function well at body temperature. They conclude that drugs designed to stabilize these fragile proteins could represent a promising direction for new therapies.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Institutes of Health and Autism Speaks.

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