This mysterious on-off switch holds clues to new cancer treatments

Within each of our cells, there’s an on-off switch that controls when cells divide and reproduce. The metaphorical finger that flips this switch is a protein called RAS. Under normal circumstances, RAS switches on to help our bodies repair wounds or replenish cells, to name a few of its functions. But sometimes, the switch gets stuck in the “on” position.

“When that happens, that uncontrolled proliferation, that’s a hallmark of cancer,” says Carla Mattos, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern who has been studying RAS for over 20 years.

“About a quarter of all human cancers have mutations in the RAS protein that turns the cell proliferation signal on and keeps it that way,” she says.

Scientists have known since the late 1980s that mutations on the RAS protein cause cancer, Mattos says. But in the decades since this discovery, cancer researchers have made little progress determining how to treat it.

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Biochemistry