Kevin Shimkus, B.S.
In muscle research, we tend to pay a great deal of attention to a particular signaling protein called mTOR, a key regulatory protein that signals for cell growth through the creation of new proteins. Consider protein building similar to a race car. The larger the engine, the greater potential for speed. Similarly, the more mTOR protein present in any given cell, the greater potential for more protein construction. And just like the gas pedal fuels the engine, mTOR is a signaling protein, and can be various levels of active (like a pedal’s ability to regulate speed). If a number of different processes all signal for ‘Go’, then the cell builds as much protein as it can, as quickly as it can. So just as a souped-up car takes off rapidly, a muscle cell can signal for tremendous muscle growth very quickly, given the right conditions.
Here’s where muscle research gets very tricky. In an ideal situation, if given the option for more muscle mass, many people would take that offer. A great deal of muscle research is aimed at upregulating (increasing) mTOR’s signal, which allows for more muscle protein synthesis. Exercise, nutrition, and a number of endocrine factors all increase mTOR signaling and contribute to muscle production. Potentially,pharmaceuticals that focus on mTOR could provide even larger muscle gains. The reason researchers haven’t yet accomplished this is wariness of a major concern: cancer.
Cancerous tumors are the jet-fueled F1 Race Car of the cell world. They’re designed to grow as fast and as large as possible, and they rely on mTOR signaling to build proteins, just like normal and healthy muscle cells. So this presents a very troubling problem for researchers: if we’re not careful, a muscle-growing therapy for people could put them at a higher risk of developing rapid and serious cancers. So while we have been trying to build bigger, faster race cars, cancer researchers are trying to build smaller, slower cells. A lot of cancer research is based around slowing down and minimizing mTOR activity in tumor cells (the exact opposite goal of muscle research).
This doesn’t necessarily doom muscle research to causing cancers and ruining medical science. As mentioned before, numerous other proteins and factors come into play, and some may respond different in muscle cells than in cancerous cells. A great deal of information from cancer research can help muscle research, and vice versa. Gaining a better understanding of mTOR and other signaling proteins, and learning the safe and appropriate ways to manipulate them can ultimately allow us to improve cancer research AND learn to improve muscle-building therapies. This gives you a nice, big, fast race car that won’t bring any problems along.
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