Called pannexin or Panx1, it plays a crucial role in normal cells, serving as doorways that, when open, allow certain things to pass through.
But in cells affected by melanoma, pannexin increases the number of doorways to the cell five-fold, something researchers at Western University think contributes to the spread of the disease beyond the skin.
When researchers curbed pannexin in cancerous cultures from mice, they found cells behaved more like normal cells, a promising finding published in the Aug. 17 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
"We now want to correlate our discovery to patient samples using the human melanoma bank,” said Silvia Penuela, who led a team working in the lab of Dale Laird, a professor of anatomy and cell biology, and a Canada Research Chair in gap junctions and disease.
By learning how much Panx1 a patient has, doctors may gain insight into how aggressive the melanoma may be, knowledge that could affect treatment, the researchers say.
The Laird laboratory recently received a $200,000 innovation grant from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute to further its studies of the protein. The next step is to use biopsied cultures taken from patients at different stages of melanoma.
"It's nice to get some funding," Laird said Wednesday.
Malignant melanoma only accounts for 4% of all skin cancers and yet, it's responsible for 79% of skin cancer-related deaths.
It's not the first time Panx1 has been fingered for possibly playing a role in disease and disorders. Researchers at the University of Calgary have found it may be linked to Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Others are investigating possible links to the progression of HIV.