A research team led by Prof. Mingjie Zhang at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and supported by the Asian Fund for Cancer Research (AFCR) has revealed for the first time a key biochemical mechanism governing “contact inhibition,” a critical process that stops the uncontrolled growth of cells. Prof. Zhang’s discovery, which provides a new drug target to stop the growth of cancer, was published in the journal Cell Research.

“Contact inhibition” is the process that organizes cells into a single layer in tissue. When cells come directly into contact with one another, this process signals them to stop growing and dividing. If contact inhibition stops working in a cell, however, then cancer can result: instead of forming into a single layer, it will continue to grow into a large lump of cells.

In many types of cancer, an important protein responsible for contact inhibition doesn’t work properly. This tumor suppressor protein, known as merlin or NF2, could hold the key to unlocking a new approach to treating cancers. But until Prof. Zhang’s work, the exact mechanism by which merlin regulates contact inhibition remained a mystery.

Now for the first time, Prof. Zhang’s team has used x-ray crystallography and biochemistry approaches to reveal exactly how the protein merlin works to regulate cell growth and proliferation. This new knowledge gives hope that the function of merlin may be restored by new drugs, offering a new approach to treating the many types of cancer in which merlin malfunctions, including cancers of the nervous system, skin, thyroid, or kidneys.

“We are very proud to have supported Prof. Zhang in this research,” said Sujuan Ba, Founder and CEO of AFCR. “The need for new treatment approaches to defeat cancer is great, and with this success Prof. Zhang is bringing new hope to patients everywhere, that a cure for cancer is on the horizon.”