Scientists' discovery offers hope on cancer

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SCIENTISTS in Edinburgh have discovered the existence of a 'very important peptide' involved in such a wide range of nerve cell functions that its detection could affect the treatment of cancer, birth defects and male impotence.

Dr Tony Harmar and Dr Eve Lutz, of the Medical Research Council's brain metabolism unit, have identified a receptor for a neurotransmitter called Vasoactive Intestinal Peptide (VIP), a chemical signal that carries messages between nerves and their target organs.

Receptors act as cell triggers and play a crucial role in converting neurotransmitter signals into responses in the target cells. Discovering the receptor means that the scientists know much more about the importance of the peptide itself.

Dr Harmar said: 'One of our difficulties at the moment is that it seems to be involved in so many different functions - there are so many different possibilities it is hard to say which is the most important.' First details of the work are given today in the journal of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS).

A year ago, Japanese scientists identified the first VIP receptor from cells in the lung. The surprise discovery in Edinburgh of a second, called the VIP-2 receptor, may have more far-reaching implications.

Dr Harmar said a VIP assisted the development of the embryonic nervous system, with implications for birth embryo defects such as babies born with part of the brain missing. It also helps control cell growth, with implications for cancer treatment, and aids blood flow, with implications for impotence caused by a physical inability to get an erection.

Dr Harmar said: 'Our discovery opens up the possibility of developing drugs which act selectively at VIP-2 receptors. These could be useful in the localisation and treatment of certain types of cancers, and effective in the treatment of male impotence.'