Microtubule research could help develop cancer drugs

New research into the microscopic transport system that occurs within cells could help to develop new cancer treatments.

A critical point of failure in the microtubules, which act as a cellular transport system, was identified by researchers at Warwick Medical School.

Microtubules are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair and are used to transport molecules around cells. The study, published in Nature Communications, explains how these structures are targets for cancer drugs and how better treatments may be developed.

Narrow seams run down the length of microtubules, forming their weakest point. The structure dissolves if the seam cracks and splits.

Although scientists have been aware before now that microtubules have a single seam running along their length, the function of such a seam was not known. The Warwick researchers developed microtubules with extra seams in the laboratory and examined their stability using video microscopes. They found the structures become more unstable the more seams they have. 

The research has significantly altered thinking on the role of microtubules and scientists are now looking for factors inside the cell that influence the stability of microtubule seams

Some cancer therapy drugs target microtubules. Taxol, used in breast cancer therapy, prevents tumours from growing by binding to microtubules and stopping them from dissolving. This prevents microtubule tracks from remodelling themselves prior to cell division and stops them from dividing.

Professor Robert Cross, head of the research team at Warwick Medical School, explained: "It is clear that any new drugs aiming to stabilise or destabilise microtubules must target the microtubule seam. We expect this to lead us to a better understanding of the way microtubules are regulated in cells and why this sometimes goes wrong, such as in development of cancer."

He went on to say the insights the team have gained show how existing cancer drugs work and may lead to the development of more effective anti-microtubule drugs. Such drugs could have a significant impact on cancer treatment.