The problem is in the genes. They control how many cells multiply in the body. If that ends, the cancer grows.
With chemotherapy, doctors can stop degenerate cells. The therapy prevents the cancer cells from dividing and the tumor from developing. Since drugs limit cell division throughout the body, treatment can have serious side effects. The mechanism of action is also responsible for the loss of hair of patients.
Researchers have been working for years to find alternatives to chemotherapy. One approach is to manipulate the cancer cells to destroy themselves. In the context of experiments on human cancer cells and in mice, this has now been done, report researchers around Feven Tameire of the University of Pennsylvania in the journal "Nature Cell Biology".
The goal of the scientists was the MYC gene. It regulates the speed with which cells grow and multiply. If it is mutated, it results in a chain reaction that causes an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, resulting in malignant tumors. The control mechanisms, which guarantee the death of these degenerate cells, do not work.
Transferability to humans is unclear
To push the cancer cells to suicide, the researchers blocked MYC by a detour. Instead of directly turning off the gene, which was not possible before, they inhibited the ATF4 protein. This first allows the cells to read MYC and thus control the growth of the cell. If ATF4 is missing, MYC can no longer stimulate the cells to grow and divide. Instead, the cell produces large amounts of a protein – until its destruction.
The researchers tested the mechanism on a dozen mice with colon cancer and lymph nodes. If the animals were unable to produce ATF4, their cancer no longer developed. The method has been successfully tested in isolated cancer cells of the breast, colon and human blood. That it works the same way in a complete human organism, researchers do not know it yet.
Let's hope that drugs that inhibit the production of ATF4 are already approved. "However, we are still studying the side effects of blocking ATF4 in cancer cells," said researcher Tameire, who examined the issue as part of her doctoral dissertation.
In studies on animals and cell cultures, researchers are constantly finding ways to treat cancer. However, it usually takes many years before the results can be applied in humans. First of all, you have to make sure that the therapy really works and that there is no incalculable danger. Some approaches also prove useless if they are examined more closely.
In addition, cancer is very different. Thus, the mechanism now discovered only works in cells whose excessive growth is due to MYC.