Proteins which control the growth of cells in embryos could teach us how to stop the uncontrolled growth of cells in cancer.

Vital to normal development in early life, these molecules may later play a role in the early stages of cancer or help it spread, according to research by molecular biologist Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin.

If so, we could target them therapeutically and block or slow progression of the disease.

In recognition of her leadership in the field, Dr Eckersley-Maslin has received one of two annual $55,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

After more than a decade studying stem cells in embryonic development, Dr Eckersley-Maslin has just returned to Australia from the United Kingdom to lead a research group at Peter Mac.

She is initially focusing on a pair of protein molecules – developmental pluripotency-associated 2 (Dppa2) and Dppa4 – that are linked with early development of different cell types. In most cases they fall silent once their work is complete. However, they can reappear later in life in some cancers.

“Cancers take on some of the features of early development and that’s been known, but how this works isn’t fully understood,” she says.

The secret could be in the role of Dppa2 and Dppa4. Healthy embryonic cell development is tightly controlled. Once the cell type is determined the cells themselves do not change.

“The heart will always stay the heart, it doesn't become the brain, despite the heart and brain cells having the same genetic sequence and the same DNA,” says Dr Eckersley-Maslin.

“A lot of that control for the early embryo is deregulated in cancers and no one has really looked at that. I’m taking these lessons that I’ve learnt on how the embryo is tightly controlled to learn how in cancers it becomes uncontrolled and cancers can grow.

“These molecules appear scattered throughout cancers, but nobody knows what they’re doing there.”

Her hypothesis is that the ability of these molecules to promote changes in cells is reawakened in cancers.

“Cancer can be thought of as a loss of cell identity and cancers are very similar to early development,” she explains.

Dr Eckersley-Maslin hopes to identify other molecules involved in the control of cell type determination as part of her research and therefore investigate other potential treatments for cancer.

“We are very keen to enhance fundamental science at Peter Mac and attract talented emerging researchers to strengthen our faculty,” says Executive Director Cancer Research Professor Ricky Johnstone.

“We are delighted that Melanie chose to establish her research group at Peter Mac and this award is fitting recognition of her exciting discoveries.”

Dr Eckersley-Maslin will be formally presented with her 2020 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research at a special event in Melbourne on Monday 8 February 2021.