BY LISA SCHONHAAR
Every day, millions of cells in our bodies “kill” themselves and are quickly removed.
While the mechanism may sound dramatic, it’s for our own good. The process ensures that potentially harmful cells destroy themselves and protects us from diseases.
Cancer cells, however, can protect themselves from self-destruction by ignoring our immune system’s cell-death signals — and that’s precisely what makes them so dangerous.
As advanced as medicine is today, the incidence of cancer diagnoses continues to rise.
Scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer estimate that this year about 18 million people will be diagnosed with cancer and about 10 million people will die of cancer. But researchers all over the world are looking for new therapy options.
Scientists from Northwestern University recently discovered a kind of genetic “kill code” in cells that could theoretically be used to treat cancer without chemotherapy.
Last year, scientists led by Marcus E. Peter discovered that every cell in the body has a code that can trigger programmed cell death, though the team was unable to decipher the mechanism behind it.
But the researchers recently said in the journal Nature Communications that they’ve now figured out how this code works. It could be an important step toward making tumor cells vulnerable to attack without the use of chemical substances.
According to the new study, the code is available as information in ribonucleic acid, or RNA, and microRNAs. The small RNA molecules can effectively kill cancer cells, a process that chemotherapy is meant to activate.
The researchers found that cancers were unable to develop resistance to the molecules, turning the mechanism into a potentially viable treatment for tumors — especially if the code could be multiplied.
“Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome,” Peter said in a news release. MicroRNAs could be used to push the affected cells to cell death.
The potential of the approach was already clear to the scientists because the molecules destroy several genes that cancer cells need to survive.
“It’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself, and jumping off a building all at the same time,” Peter said last year, according to the news release. “You cannot survive.”
Since chemotherapy has serious side effects, the aim of the study was not to develop a new toxic substance. Peter said he wanted to use a mechanism that had developed naturally — something already inside us that only needed activating.
The next step would be to incorporate this mechanism into a new therapy. Because the method hasn’t been tested on animals, let alone humans, that very well could take years, but it may be a revolutionary step in the fight against cancer.