Scientists have discovered a new mechanism which causes cancerous cells to kill themselves off. They claim it could be particularly effective for aggressive forms of the disease, such as pancreatic cancer.
When the process is once activated by modifying specific proteins inside cancerous tissue, the relentless division that drives the disease is drawn to a halt, causing cancer cells to die off rather than spreading throughout the body. This technique leaves the healthy cells alone unlike the current cancer treatments.
Researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel were observing the effect in cancer cell cultures and human cancer cells transplanted into mice. Their next step is to figure out if this mechanism can also work in the human body.
Malka Cohen-Armon, the lead researcher says: “The discovery of an exclusive mechanism that kills cancer cells without impairing healthy cells, and the fact that this mechanism works on a variety of rapidly proliferating human cancer cells, is very exciting.“
In their research, scientists were focussed on proteins that affect the construction and stability of the spindle – the part of the cell responsible for organising genetic material during a stage of cell division called mitosis.
Certain compounds in cancerous cells – derivatives of the chemical phenanthridine – end up disrupting the spindle, as the team found, preventing cell chromosomes from splitting, and stopping the cell from dividing.
The growth of the cancer is essentially mitosis out of control, but with the division halted thanks to the new protein mechanism, these cancer cells can die off instead of spreading throughout the body.
“According to the mechanism we discovered, the faster cancer cells proliferate, the faster and more efficiently they will be eradicated,” says Cohen-Armon.
This technique was tested with positive results on a variety of tumour types in human cancer cell cultures, including breast, lung, ovary, colon, pancreas, blood, and brain cancer.
This is one of many researches currently exploring ways to kill off cancer cells with minimum damage to the body.
Last year, a protein called ProAgio that could trigger cancer cell death was identified from researchers from Georgia State University. This protein is initiating the natural process of apoptosis in cancer cells – the process our bodies use to clear away old cells, and which cancer cells usually evade.
Some previous studies have looked at stopping glucose supply to cancer cells, and blocking a protein called MCL1 which also enables cancer cells to resist apoptosis.
Research to develop these findings into treatments continues.
Further studies will be done from the team from Tel Aviv in order to see how the protein mechanism combats triple negative breast cancer and pancreatic cancer, as they work towards developing a possible anti-cancer drug.
“Identifying the mechanism and showing its relevance in treating developed tumours opens new avenues for the eradication of rapidly developing aggressive cancers without damaging healthy tissues,” says Cohen-Armon.