The surprising possibility that a cell's own natural mechanism for ensuring its mortality could be used to vanquish tumors opens the door to a new approach to developing drugs to treat cancer patients, according to Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (oncology) and of pathology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Felsher is the senior author of the study to be published July 30 in the advance online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our research implies that by shutting off a critical cancer gene, tumor cells can realize that they are broken and restore this physiologic fail-safe program," said Felsher.
Cancer can be notoriously resistant to medical treatment. Not only do cancer cells proliferate uncontrollably, they somehow circumvent the mechanism that causes normal cells to die when they get old or malfunction. That makes cancer cells effectively immortal unless doctors manage to squelch them.
The gene Felsher's team studied produces a protein called Myc (pronounced "mick"), which promotes cell division. A mutation of the gene causes cells to overproduce the protein, prompting perpetual cell division and tumor growth. By turning off the mutated gene, the researchers found that not only did uncontrolled cell division cease, but the cells also reactivated a normal physiological mechanism, called senescence, which makes it possible for a cell to eventually die.
"What was unexpected was just the fact that cancer cells had retained the ability to undergo senescence at all," said Felsher. Cancer researchers had long thought the senescence process had to be irreversibly disrupted for a tumor to develop.
The researchers worked with a series of mice engineered to have Myc-triggered cancers of either the liver, blood or bones, along with a specially constructed version of the Myc gene that they could switch off by feeding the mice antibiotics. When the mice dined on doses of the drugs, invariably, the tumors ceased growing and then diminished, with some disappearing over the course of just a few days.
Although Felsher's lab had previously shown that mouse tumors diminished and disappeared when Myc was switched off, they hadn't been sure how the process actually worked. Historically, most research involving genetic methods of battling cancer cells has focused on reactivating genes called tumor-suppressor genes, which are generally overcome by a proliferating cancer. No one had explored the idea that senescence might play a key role in diminishing tumors.
Felsher described senescence as acting like a fail-safe mechanism to stop cancer. When a cell detects a deleterious mutation, it launches the senescence process, resulting in the permanent loss of the cell's ability to proliferate, thus halting any cancer.
"In order to become tumor cells, those cells have to overcome senescence," said Chi-Hwa Wu, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in Felsher's lab and first author of the study. Wu had the inspiration to explore whether the sudden diminishment they had observed in the tumors might be due to the reactivation of some latent remnant of the trigger for senescence.
Through a series of experiments looking at enzymes associated with the senescence process, as well as some molecular markers, Wu confirmed her suspicion. And not only was senescence occurring in cells that had been thought to be incapable of it, the process was reactivated in all the different tumors they studied.
Consider it a cell version of the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. "It's sort of like Mr. Hyde realizing that there's something wrong with him and then being able to put himself back into his normal state as Dr. Jekyll," Felsher said.
In addition to the deepened understanding of how the process of senescence works, Felsher and Wu see a lot of potential for new approaches to treating cancer, beyond the traditional tactic of trying to kill cancer cells directly. "This work implies that maybe part of the strategy should involve figuring out how to get the cancer cells to just be allowed to do what they originally wanted to do anyway, which is to not be proliferating endlessly and growing uncontrolled," said Felsher.
The next step for the team is to see how well the approach works in human cancer cells. "And we're also trying to figure out what the mechanism is," Felsher said. "What are the molecular mechanisms of this, so that we can figure out how to better treat cancer"
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