Height protein could be cancer and diabetes treatment target

16 May 2014

University of Queensland scientists have discovered that a protein that regulates how tall you grow could be used in treating diseases including cancer and diabetes.

Growth hormone, acting through its receptor, determines whether you are struggling to reach high shelves or bumping your head on doorways.

Researchers from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, led by Professor Mike Waters, have now found it is also an untapped target for drugs.

“People without growth hormone receptor don’t die from cancer or diabetes, making it an ideal drug target,” Professor Waters said.

“But we didn’t know enough about how it functioned to be able to design cancer or diabetes drugs that would bind to the receptor and turn it either on or off as appropriate.

“We’ve now figured out how growth hormone turns on its receptor at the molecular level, and so have a clear idea of which part of the molecule to target to design drugs to combat these diseases.”

This is the culmination of 45 years of work studying growth hormone for Professor Mike Waters, who originally cloned the receptor with Genentech, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.

The discovery was published overnight in Science, one of the world’s top scientific journals. Subscribers to the journal can access the article at:

Dr Andrew Brooks, who led the study with Professor Waters, said the discovery had implications beyond cancer and diabetes.

“Growth hormone receptor is one of a group of proteins known as cytokine receptors, which are important targets for therapeutics for a range of disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, blood disorders, osteoporosis and obesity,” Dr Brooks said.

“Our understanding of how growth hormone receptor functions should give us insights into how the other cytokine receptors work, which in turn will inform the design of therapeutics to target these cytokine receptors and to treat many diseases.”

Professor Waters and Dr Brooks conducted the study in collaboration with UQ colleagues including Professor Alan Mark and Dr Megan O’Mara from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, and interstate and international researchers including Professor Manolis Doxastakis from the University of Houston.

The study was funded by organisations including the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

To make a tax-deductible donation to IMB research, visit www.imb.uq.edu.au/donate or call +61 (07) 3346 2134.

To discuss commercial opportunities associated with this research, contact Dr Mark Ashton on m.ashton@uniquest.com.au or +61 (07) 3346 2186.

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing medical genomics, drug discovery and biotechnology.

The School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences teaches and researches across a discipline mix, the common thread of which is the capacity of molecular-based approaches to create understanding and to lead to discovery.  Its internationally-recognised staff are highly ranked in research excellence assessments and are award-winners for their teaching.


Media contact: IMB Communications Manager Bronwyn Adams, 0418 575 247, 07 3346 2134, b.adams@imb.uq.edu.au.