Cancer researchers have begun to approach the deadly disease in a completely different way. As a result, they are making huge strides toward finding a cure.
Mayo Clinic cancer researcher Panos Anastasiadis says the breakthrough represents “an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer.”
Scientists were able to unlock that code when they discovered that adhesion proteins — the glue that keeps cells together — interact with the microprocessor, a key player in the production of molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs).
Critical role of miRNAs
These miRNAs orchestrate whole cellular programs by simultaneously regulating expression of a group of genes. The investigators found that when normal cells come in contact with each other, miRNAs help keep the cells from growing.
In a cancer cell, the miRNAs don't work the way they are supposed to. When that happens, cells grow out of control.
The breakthrough occurred when the Mayo researchers went into cancer cells and restored the normal miRNA levels. When they did, cancer cells stopped growing.
Lead author Antonis Kourtidis says it solved a mystery for research scientists, who were struggling to understand how adhesion proteins affected cell behavior.
“Most significantly, it uncovers a new strategy for cancer therapy,” he said.
That strategy involves going into cancer cells and making adjustments that restore these cancer cells to normal cells.
“Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising,”Anastasiadis said.
This is just the latest cancer research representing a different approach to treatment. Instead of using toxic drugs to kill the cells, or surgery to remove them, scientists are tweaking the body's internal operating system to turn malignant cells into benign ones.
Recent research has focused on using the body's T-cells to find and destroy malignant cells. T-cells are a type of lymphocyte – a type of white blood cell – that plays a key role in regulating the body's immune system.
T-cells don't do a very good job of distinguishing between healthy or cancerous cells on their own. But in 2013, scientists working at Immunocore were basically able to arm the body's T-cells with a guidance system that helped them target the cancer cells.
Increasingly, cancer researchers are thinking outside the box – and looking to the body's own systems and tools as a means to find a cure for cancer.