Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

NEWS FEATURE: A ballsy search for cancer targets

By Megan Scudellari

Staring at the list of proteins on her computer screen, Angelique Whitehurst was baffled. It was 2006, and Whitehurst, then a postdoc at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, was harnessing the recently discovered power of genome-wide RNA interference to single out the genes and their corresponding proteins responsible for drug resistance in human cancer cells. Although her screen flagged many of the usual suspects, including dozens of proteins involved in cell division and protein translation, one subset of molecular targets stood out like a sore thumb. “I kept thinking, ‘What are all these testis proteins doing in here?’” she recalls.

Whitehurst, an energetic blond with a contagious smile, plopped down in front of her computer and dug into the literature. The interlopers, she found out, were cancer-testis antigens, or CT antigens, members of a group of proteins normally only highly expressed in the germ cells of the testes (and to a lesser extent in the ovaries), yet also found in a wide variety of tumor types.

That fortuitous discovery changed Whitehurst’s research trajectory. Four years after publishing the finding1, Whitehurst has devoted her lab to teasing apart what the elusive CT antigens actually do in cancerous tissues. That knowledge, she now believes, could lead to the development of new, more sophisticated cancer drugs.

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