Cancer-fighting protein may combat other diseases

Researchers at the University of Ottawa’s Heart Institute have discovered that a cancer-fighting protein called HACE1 could also combat diabetes and heart failure, a finding that could eventually benefit those being treated in diabetes programs.

“While working on (the protein) from a cancer point of view, it was kind of an accident when we found it in a patient with heart failure,” says Dr. Peter Liu, scientific director at the Heart Institute.

The discovery by Liu and his team will help medical experts understand why heart failure occurs and how it can be better treated for patients with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that can be triggered by a number of factors including obesity, smoking, inactivity or family history.

It affects more than 1.9 million people in Canada and more than 700,000 people in Ontario alone are living with diabetes according to Statistics Canada.

Diabetes is caused when the body does not produce enough insulin or cannot use insulin effectively. This allows for high levels of glucose, which can damage organs, blood vessels and nerves.

Diabetes is strongly related to heart disease, because people with diabetes are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems. The World Health Organization says heart failure accounts for 50 to 80 per cent of diabetes-related deaths.

WHO also predicts total deaths from diabetes will increase by more than 50 per cent in the next 10 years.

 The discovery of HACE1’s diabetes fighting potential could help reduce this predicted death toll.

The researchers at the Heart Institute found that HACE1 is a natural protein in the body that works to remove damaged proteins in the heart caused by injuries. It works as a kind of cleaner, clearing away dangerous proteins.

According to the study, when stress is placed on the heart HACE1 can become damaged and fail to work as a cleaning agent. This can lead to a build-up of damaged proteins that stop the heart from functioning properly and slowly cause it to fail.

The discovery could help doctors make better diagnoses for patients with heart failure, says Liu.

“This opens up potential new opportunities for us to look for ways to better protect the heart, by taking advantage of what nature may have already designed that we did not realize before,” he says.

The Community Diabetes Education Program of Ottawa works with Centretown residents with Type 2 diabetes, the form most common in adults.

Chrys Silvestre, a nurse and diabetes educator for the program, says Centretown residents need to be educated about risks. She noted there are certain cultural groups that may be more susceptible to the disease, listing Asian, Hispanic, African and aboriginal groups as being at high risk.

Liu thinks HACE1 may be able to help.

However, because the research by the Heart Institute was only published in Nature Communications journal in early March it is hard for diabetes educators to predict its impact on programs like the one in Centretown, says Silvestre.

She is excited about the discovery, she says, “(but) we are far from seeing any practical treatment come from it.”

Liu admits the discovery of the protein is only the first step and more research still needs to be done.

Researchers will now work to find ways to stimulate HACE1 proteins, after they become damaged, to quickly clear out a build-up of bad proteins. Liu says they will also look at ways to sooner predict heart failure by testing for levels of HACE1 in a patient’s bloodstream.

Five to 10 years down the road, Liu predicts, HACE1 should be available to treat patients and people suffering from heart disease and diabetes.