The protein, called LHPP, can serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer, according to the research published in the journal Nature.
The researchers led by Michael N Hall from the University of Basel in Switzerland show that the loss of LHPP promotes tumour growth and reduces the chance of survival of cancer patients.
The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing, researchers said. Hepatocellular carcinoma is usually diagnosed at a very late stage when the liver is already severely damaged and hence overall prognosis is poor.
Detection of the anti-cancer protein LHPP as a biomarker may allow clinicians to provide better treatment options. Liver tumours develop from mutated cells that grow and proliferate uncontrollably.
Anti-cancer proteins, so-called tumour suppressors, prevent uncontrolled cell growth. LHPP could potentially be used as a prognostic biomarker, researchers said. They generated a mouse model for hepatocellular carcinoma by activating mTOR signalling specifically in the liver.
They analysed a total of more than 4,000 proteins, comparing them in healthy and tumour tissue. An enzyme emerged as the top favourite: the histidine phosphatase LHPP.
"It is striking that LHPP is present in healthy tissue and completely absent in tumour tissue," said Sravanth Hindupur from University of Basel.
Re-introduction of the genetic information for LHPP by the researchers prevents the formation of tumours and maintains liver function.
"Similar to the mouse model, we also saw a striking decrease in LHPP levels in tumours of patients with liver cancer," said Hindupur.