2011 News Stories

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Andrea Fleig, PhD, and Susanna Zierler, PhDThe Queen's Center for Biomedical Research (QCBR), in collaboration with scientists at RW Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, Univserité d’Auvergne in France, and the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, has made a discovery that could have implications for the treatment of cancer. The discovery focuses on the role of magnesium at the cellular level. The study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications, an online-only, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to publishing high-quality research in all areas of the biological, physical, and chemical sciences. Papers published by the journal represent important advances of significance to specialist within each field.

Cells are isolated against each other by plasma membranes, but they constantly “talk” to each other. Part of this communication is accomplished with charged ions (such as those of sodium, calcium, and magnesium), which must pass into the cell across the plasma membrane via pores, or “ion channels.” These ion channels are like little doors that open and close when cells communicate with each other. The malfunction of ion channels and the influx of various ions through these channels have been associated with disease. The ultimate goal is to find drugs that will inhibit or stimulate the activity of ion channels to possibly stop, reverse, or manage diseases. The recently published study shows that an ion channel known as TRPM7 is critically involved in the body’s regulation of magnesium levels. This area of research is one of the most promising in terms of curing or influencing the outcome of many major diseases.


Magnesium is the second most abundant nutrient in the human body and an important element in cell growth. “This protein has a central role in cellular processes,” said Andrea Fleig, PhD, Queen’s Director of Clinical Research and a coauthor of the study. “The division and growth of cells requires a large amount of magnesium, and since cancers are essentially the unrestrained growth of cells, this implies that [the TRPM7 ion channel] is a possible target for anti-cancer therapies.” Cancer cells in particular divide quickly and need a lot of magnesium and pull it from surrounding tissue.

The investigators are currently experimenting with a natural compound found in Hawaiian waters that may be used as a TRPM7 blocker. The compound is a thousand-fold more effective in cells with high concentrations of magnesium—like cancer cells—than in normal ones that have a lesser amounts of the molecule. “We are very proud of the study, and to be published in such a recognized journal,” said Dr. Fleig. “We also hope the research will further breakthroughs for patients with cancer.”


Photo caption:
Andrea Fleig, PhD, and Susanna Zierler, PhD, in the QCBR laboratory.

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