Suicide molecules: a possible cure for cancer

This method can force tumors to self-destruct

Suicide molecules: a possible cure for cancer 

Leer en Español: Moléculas suicidas: la posible cura para el cáncer

A research carried out by the Northwestern University in Illinois, United States discovered that RNA molecules, which were originally developed as a tool to study gene function triggers, can also be the answer to treating cancer. The trigger mechanism forces cells to commit suicide, apoptosis.

When some sequences in the human genome are transformed into smaller double-stranded RNA molecules, it triggers an ancient kill switch in cells. This is why scientist assured that the mechanism can potentially be developed as a form of cancer therapy. The research showed that cancer cells treated with the RNA suicide molecules never become resistant to them because it works as a bomb that also destroys multiples genes that are vital for the malignant cells to thrive.

Marcus Peter, a Northwestern scientist and leader of the research, explained that method "it's like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time (...) you cannot survive".

DNA and RNA are both genetic information but the first one is responsible for storing and transferring genetic information; RNA handles the codes for amino acids while being the messenger of the DNA to produce proteins

The research found said mechanism by testing a class of RNAs, which are used by scientist to suppress gene activity. These molecules, when introduced into cells, suppress the expression of the gene they are derived from. Then the researchers found out that the small RNA molecules not only suppress the gene, but also kill all cancer cells.

In the treated mice, the treatment strongly reduced the tumor growth with no toxicity to the animals

Peter assured that the suicide mechanism would only be active in the cells when they are cancerous. "We think this is how multicellular organisms eliminated cancer before the development of the adaptive immune system, which is about 500 million years old (...) We believe it is active in every cell protecting us from cancer”, stated the professor.

Why are these molecules so powerful?

The research claimed to have discovered an ancient mechanism that is no longer being used. This can also open an alternative panorama of many defense mechanisms that we, as humans, are no longer using.

According to the research leader, ever since life became multicellular, it had to deal with cancer. "So, nature must have developed a failsafe mechanism to prevent cancer or fight it the moment it forms. Otherwise, we wouldn't still be here".

Cancer treatment

The research group tested the treatment by delivering the assassin molecules via nanoparticles to mice bearing human ovarian cancer. In the treated mice, the treatment reduced the tumor growth with no toxicity for the animals.

The study, published in Oncotarget, also showed that the tumors didn't develop resistance to this form of treatment. Different to so many other treatments were the patients start fighting cancer, but then the carcinogenic cells developed immunity and the treatment stops working. Marcus Peter and Dr. Shad Thaxton, associate professor of urology at Feinberg, are now refining the treatment.

Professor Peter thinks that "our research may be tapping into one of nature’s original kill switches, and we hope the impact will affect many cancers (...) our findings could be disruptive”.


Latin American Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

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