Biologists Just Discovered a Simple Way to Make Cancer Cells Self-Destruct

Cancer cells.

Cancer cells. Wikimedia Commons

A team of 22 biologists just made a huge breakthrough in cancer research.

The scientists from California Institute of Technology and UC San Diego discovered a drug that actually makes cancer cells self-destruct. The findings of the study, which was led by Caltech professor Ray Deshaies, were published yesterday in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

The crux of the treatment is the way it inhibits cancer cells’ cleanup mechanisms. Like all cells, cancerous ones must regularly clean themselves up to survive. A structure called the proteasome acts as a garbage disposal of sorts, and what this drug does is make it impossible for the proteasome to fully destroy bad proteins. This results in a massive pile-up of the proteins that need to be destroyed for the cells’ survival, ultimately causing the cells to self-destruct.

‘Our research offers an alternative path to disabling proteasome function, including in cells that no longer respond to the existing drugs.’

This isn’t the first treatment that aims to battle cancer cells by targeting the proteasome, but it’s doing it in a different way that will make is possible to battle stubborn cancer cells that don’t respond to existing drugs.

“All current cancer drugs that target the proteasome work by inhibiting the protein-chopping enzymes on the inside of the proteasome; therefore they all have similar drawbacks and tend to lose efficacy over time,” Jing Li, a postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering and first author on the paper, told Medical Xpress. “Our research offers an alternative path to disabling proteasome function, including in cells that no longer respond to the existing drugs.”

All cells contain proteasomes that are affected by the drug, but the difference is that non-cancerous cells are not producing the large number of bad proteins that cancer cells do. For this reason, cancer cells are much more sensitive to proteasome inhibition—even just a small dose of the drug compound can be fatal to them.

Thus far, the team has tested on human cancer cells in a laboratory. Next they’ll test the drug on animals to determine its potential for treating human patients.

Biologists Just Discovered a Simple Way to Make Cancer Cells Self-Destruct