Health Sciences Campus

NIH grant aids study of prostate cancer protein

Dr. Maria Ruiz-Echevarria
GREENVILLE, N.C.  (Feb. 28, 2011)  —  With the help of a grant of more than $400,000, Dr. Maria Ruiz-Echevarria is looking at ways a protein could help the prognosis, treatment and/or, detection of prostate cancer.

Ruiz-Echevarria, a scientist and assistant professor of hematology/oncology, received the three-year, $423,803 grant from the National Institutes of Health in December. The funds will help her and her team determine the role of the TMEFF2 protein in prostate-specific tumor development. TMEFF2 is a protein involved in prostate cancer.

Ruiz-Echevarria came to ECU in 2007 with her husband, Dr. Adam Asch, chief of hematology/oncology at ECU. She has a doctorate from Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas in Madrid, Spain.

Her previous research centered on the post-transcriptional control of gene expression – more specifically in the mechanisms and factors that regulate the synthesis of proteins. While searching for proteins involved in stem cell differentiation, she ran across one called TMEFF2.

"This project turned out to be a very good source of information," she said. The results demonstrated that translation regulation is an important mechanism during stem cell differentiation and provided several interesting factors to focus on, among them TMEFF2, a transmembrane protein expressed only in the brain and prostate.

Ruiz-Echevarria's team has determined that TMEFF2 interacts with the enzyme sarcosine dehydrogenase and regulates the level of sarcosine, recently described as a regulator of cell invasion and metastasis. That suggests the studies on TMEFF2 and/or the pathways involved in its mechanism of action might provide important clues into the biology of prostate cancer and the ability to treat it.

Interestingly, the results of Ruiz-Echevarria's research suggest that the protein has multiple effects that depend upon whether it is expressed by the cell or cleaved from it. Full-length TMEFF2, expressed in the cell suppresses tumor formation; however, when the protein is cleaved from the cell membrane, it promotes deregulated growth of prostate cells, which can lead to cancer.

Ruiz-Echevarria points out that there are many different types of cancer and many factors that affect cancer. "There are so many things in the cancer cells that aren't working the way they should be," she said, "and, therefore, finding a cure is not straightforward task, but we hope to make a substantial contribution. TMEFF2 expression may be a marker of prostate cancer disease or may itself be a viable target to which prostate cancer therapy might be developed. We are excited by the opportunity to make important contributions in this disease, which affects so many in our region and elsewhere."

Contact: Doug Boyd | 252-744-2482