GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Researchers at the Van Andel Institute believe they have pinpointed a specific gene mutation that ultimately leads to treatment-resistant cancers.

The findings were published this month in the scientific journal Molecular Cell. Dr. Russell Jones, the chair of VAI’s Department of Metabolism & Nutritional Programming, says it all has to do with a specific gene called STK11.

“STK11 encodes a protein called LKB1. LKB1 is a tumor suppressor, which means that when it is lost in cells, it can cause cancer … it really promotes unchecked growth of cancer cells,” Jones told News 8. “When you have mutations in LKB1, a lot of those cancers end up becoming resistant to therapy … and people really don’t know why.”

The VAI team was able to determine that certain therapy-resistant cancers stem from that mutation.

“Graduate student Shelby Compton from the lab found that when cells lose LKB1, they actually turn on an inflammatory pathway, which is basically a normal cell pathway that happens when we have infections or are injured. But in the context of cancer cells, this actually gives them an environment to help them grow unchecked,” Jones said.

In layman’s terms, Jones says that inflammation would usually trigger the body’s immune system for protection. But in this case, the immune system is protecting the cancer.

LKB1 mutations are one of the most common genetic mutations that lead to cancers in humans. They are primarily seen in the lungs, pancreas, ovaries and cervix.

A breakthrough for therapy-resistant cancers could save a lot of lives. Jones says about half a million Americans live with lung cancer each year and LKB1 is mutated in approximately one-third of all lung cancers. That means around 150,000 Americans alone dealing with a therapy-resistant form of lung cancer.

“If we can find ways of actually targeting this inflammatory circuit in this type of cancer, we can unlock the potential to treat these hard-to-treat cancers,” he said.

Jones, who has been studying the STK11 gene for nearly 20 years, says the new breakthrough can be used to study and treat other diseases beyond cancer.

“It’s well known that inflammation plays a role in many different conditions, from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and whatnot. It’s really understanding what parts of inflammation are driving these diseases,” he said. “I think by looking at this particular gene mutation in LKB1, we can really use it as a paradigm to figure out where and how we intervene in breaking inflammation because there are a lot of common elements.”