Breakthrough in cancer research: How cancer cells can be tempted to commit suicide

Lymphocytes are part of the body's immune system and even fight cancer cells. (Image: Christoph Burgstedt / fotolia.com)

Researchers drive tumor cells to suicide

Along with heart disease, cancer is the most common cause of death. Cancer treatment is extremely difficult, especially when metastases develop. This could soon change as an American research team reports a major breakthrough in cancer research. Apparently, the researchers have discovered an Achilles' heel in the cancer cells, with which the cells can be driven to suicide.

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Scientists at the Perelman School of Medicine discovered a way in which tumor cells self-destruct. They found in a study that cancer cells make too much protein and eventually die from it when a certain protein called ATF4 is blocked. These findings could pave the way for a completely new approach to fighting cancer. The research results were recently presented in the journal "Nature Cell Biology".

According to a recent study, cancer cells can be driven to suicide by blocking a specific protein. This leads to a stress reaction in the cells, which then causes them to die. (Image: Christoph Burgstedt / fotolia.com)

Genetic research points a new way in cancer treatment

The focus of current research is the MYC gene. It has been known for years that this gene contributes significantly to uncontrolled tumor growth when it mutates. For this reason, MYC has already been assigned a key role in the fight against cancer in several studies. Earlier studies tried to block the signaling pathways of this gene in order to stop tumor growth. The Pennsylvania team now found an earlier approach that resulted in the cells killing themselves.

Chain reaction fuels tumor growth

MYC is a gene that normally controls cell growth.When it mutates in the course of cancer, it triggers a veritable chain reaction that leads to the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. Since no way has yet been found to manipulate the gene directly, previous research was limited to interrupting the chain reaction. However, since the gene controls several processes at the same time, this approach has proven to be ineffective.

No more escape

This is where Constantinos Koumenis's team came in. They found an earlier point of attack that suppresses all processes at the same time. This was achieved by blocking a protein called ATF4, which is involved in all of the gene's processes. "We have learned that we have to start further downstream to block tumor growth so that the cancer cells cannot escape the blockage," explains the study director.

Is the ATF4 protein the Achilles' heel of cancer cells?

The research team showed that all signaling pathways of the MYC gene converge on the ATF4 protein. The researchers also discovered that ATF4 activates certain genes that tumors need to grow. The protein also controls the production of other proteins (4E-BP) that are vital for cancer cells.

Cancer cells kill themselves

To test the potential for cancer therapy, the team blocked the ATF4 protein in mice with lymphoma and colon cancer. The tumor cells then continued to produce 4E-BP proteins in an uncontrolled manner, but were unable to process them further. The overproduction triggered a stress reaction in the cancer cells, which ultimately led to the death of the cell. This stopped the cancer from progressing in the mice.

Does this also work for humans?

Initial tests have already confirmed that blocking ATF4 triggers the same reactions in human tumor cells. This is an indication that this approach could actually be used for cancer therapy. At the moment, however, it is still unclear what side effects the ATF4 blockade triggers in humans. "We are already working to confirm that this approach will not cause any serious side effects," emphasizes the study's lead author Feven Tameire. In further studies, the ATF4 function is now to be examined more closely in order to be able to develop a new treatment against cancer from it. (vb)

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