02/04/2012 08:07 BST | Updated 03/04/2012 11:16 BST

Medical Breakthrough: Proteins That Help Beat Head, Neck, Breast And Pancreatic Cancer Discovered

A protein that slashes the survival rates of head and neck cancer sufferers has been discovered - leaving scientists feeling positive that it could be vital for future treatment to help prevent cancer tumours developing.

Researchers from the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia found patients with head and neck cancer tumours had higher levels of the protein known as Aurora-A.

The study compared the survival rates of those with high and normal levels of the Aurora-A protein and discovered that those carrying above average levels had shorter survival rates following surgery to remove the tumour.

Following this discovery, scientists created a compound that targets this protein- the same protein which has also been associated with genitourinary, gastrointestinal, breast and lung cancer.

"This finding suggests Aurora-A does play a role in the development of had and neck cancers," says study author Christian J.Fidler in a statement. "Consequently, Aurora-A represents another potential target for additional therapies."

The Aurora-A protein is believed to fuel tumour growth, as it helps carry signals from a protein on the surface of the cell called EGFR which encourages cancer cells to grow or divide.

Another study by the same university also made a breakthrough 'biomarker' protein discovery linked to the survival rate of pancreatic cancer, this time focusing on the protein called survivin.

For patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the five-year survival rate is barely 20%. However, scientists have discovered a key protein that could identify how likely a patient is to survive and how well they respond to treatment.

The role of survivin, a protein that blocks apoptosis (cell death), was investigated further as researchers studied 88 patients with pancreatic cancer. They discovered that those with higher levels of surviving lived longer after receiving the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine and radiation therapy (5-FU).

"Biomarkers for pancreatic cancer are especially useful because the survival is o poor and it's such a bad disease for people to get," explains Saad Khan from the study. "We want to see if there are drugs that work better in patients with surviving than in those who don't have it."

Researchers added that although the findings are a long way off from drawing a line under whether survivin helps prevent pancreatic cancer, they feel positive that it will pave the way for further research into the subject.

"In terms of overall survival, patients treated with chemotherapy or radiation did better when they had higher amounts of survivin which goes against what we'd expected, but this did not achieve statistical significance.

"Our results suggest that people with higher levels of survivin responded better to specific chemotherapies.

"There's a lot of work being done in biomarkers for more aggressive cancers, like pancreatic," Khan explains.

Researchers from the Fox Chase Cancer Center also looked into the role of two other proteins that could play a crucial role in treating breast cancer.

The study discovered that the proteins STAT-1 and PLSCR-1 help restore the body's sensitivity towards the resistance against cancerous cells.

The proteins are 20 times more likely to appear in breast cancer cells that are resistant to oestrogen deprivation than in cancer cells that die without oestrogen. This is significant because oestrogen is the hormone that fuels cancerous cell growth.

"The models we've developed in the lab are reflective of what happens in the clinic when you have patients with hormone-dependent disease," says study author Joan Lewis-Wambi in a statement. "Initially they respond to treatment, but over time the disease becomes resistant to the drug, and the drug no longer works."

Scientists are hoping to use these proteins in treatment that help cells become less resistant to oestrogen-depriving drugs and help that cancerous cells die.

"Our goal is to identify the genes that make patients more or less likely to respond to a drug," explains Lewis-Wambi.

All findings were presented AACR Annual Meeting 2012.

Scientific Medical Breakthroughs