A Solution That Holds Water

Researchers uncover why some drugs fail to suppress common protein

Fluorescent dye lights up actin strings in a cell in a rainbow of colors. The cell edge glows in a shape like a fried egg against a black backdrop.
Integrins connect cells’ fibrous cytoskeletons, shown here, with the matrix that surrounds them. Image: Xiaowei Zhuang/HHMI/Harvard University/Nature Publishing Group

Name a biological function, and proteins called integrins are probably involved in it.

Together, the 24 members of the integrin family allow cells to attach to one another and to the matrix that surrounds them. They help cells decide what to become, where to go, how to respond to their environments, and when to grow, divide, or die.

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Integrins’ ubiquity and versatility also mean that when cells bearing them go awry, these proteins can contribute to a range of diseases, from autoimmune diseases to cancer.

The FDA has so far approved six drugs that reduce the activity of specific integrins to treat illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis and to prevent blood clots from forming. To the disappointment of scientists, doctors, and patients, however, other promising candidates have failed in clinical trials and curtailed integrins’ potential as treatment targets.