Scientists may have found a way to kill cancer cells without chemotherapy

Chemo is our best response to cancer so far. A novel new therapy could render it obsolete.

  • Researchers at Northwestern have discovered a genetic "kill code" that might enable the destruction of cancer cells.
  • This novel new therapy "downstream" of chemo might destroy cancer cells without affecting the body's immune system.
  • While no animal trials have been conducted, this potential therapy could signal the demise of chemotherapy.

One of the biggest criticisms about our current approach to treating cancer is chemotherapy. Critics liken it to dropping a bomb on a village instead of singling out homes of bad actors. War metaphors are impossible to avoid when discussing cancer, for good reason: It is an all-out assault on your body.

When I went through testicular cancer, I was given three options: Since it had not metastasized, do nothing after surgery and monitor; two weeks of radiation therapy (which often leads to another cancer down the road); one round of chemotherapy, mostly as a preventive measure. I chose the latter.

Even my oncologist knew it wasn't an ideal solution. As with much of medicine, you go with what's best until something better is discovered. Chemotherapy is an umbrella term with numerous dosages and drugs in the various courses. My one round was on the mild side; a close friend had 12 rounds in four months while battling a much more aggressive intestinal cancer. His immune system needed serious rebuilding after that incident.

While there are many applications and complications associated with chemotherapy, the commonly understood mechanism is the paralyzing of bone marrow, which leads to lower amounts of red and white blood cells and platelets. This results in the depression of your immune system. Along with the suppression and cessation of growth of cancer cells, numerous important cells are also damaged, stressed, or destroyed. In very aggressive cancers, bone marrow stem cells are obliterated and must be replaced.

Making cancer as harmless as the common cold | Michio Kaku

For most people, it's time and healing. Destroy your immune system, rest, eat well, and exercise to the degree you can to keep blood flowing. While not ideal, it works for many. Billions of dollars are spent each year searching for better means of fighting this disease. A new course of action shows promise that one day, chemotherapy too might be a practice of the past.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at Northwestern University have discovered a genetic "kill code" that could enable the destruction of cancer cells without the "spray and pray" mentality of chemotherapy.

The hardest part of cancer research thus far has been finding a way to destroy cancer cells without affecting the rest of the body's networks. In 2017, a team led by Marcus E Peter, a professor at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, discovered that every cell in our body has a unique code that can trigger cell death. His team did not understand how to switch that code on, however.

Bringing us to the current study, also led by Peter. As Lisa Schönhaar and Ruqayyah Moynihan write for Business Insider:

According to the new study, the code is available as information in ribonucleic acid, or RNA, and microRNAs. The small RNA molecules can effectively kill cancer cells, a process that chemotherapy is meant to activate.

Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Testing this method on four cell lines, two human and two mouse, the team identified over 700 targets leading to cancer cell proliferation. They found that chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells in part by triggering the release of a toxic mechanism, resulting in the release of tumor-suppressive miRNAs. By targeting this specific mechanism, they believe they might be able to trigger this action without the complications posed by current genotoxic drugs.

As Peter commented on the study:

"Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome… My goal was not to come up with a new artificial toxic substance. I wanted to follow nature's lead. I want to utilize a mechanism that nature developed."

Unfortunately, such an application is years away. The team has yet to conduct a single animal trial. That said, Peter hopes to turn this knowledge into a "novel form of therapy." One major problem with chemotherapy, Peter says, is that since it triggers the release of toxic RNAs, secondary cancers can result as a consequence. The new potential therapy his team is developing is "downstream" of chemo and may avoid the side effects of destroying an entire immune system.

As with all breakthrough drugs, numerous studies will have to be conducted. But the time spent might be worth it, if this kill code can be put into action.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Should you defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazis?

Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen discusses whether our society should always defend free speech rights, even for groups who would oppose such rights.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen understands that protecting free speech rights isn't always a straightforward proposition.
  • In this video, Strossen describes the reasoning behind why the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon mission 2.0: What humanity will learn by going back to the Moon

Going back to the moon will give us fresh insights about the creation of our solar system.

Videos
  • July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — Apollo 11.
  • Today, we have a strong scientific case for returning to the moon: the original rock samples that we took from the moon revolutionized our view of how Earth and the solar system formed. We could now glean even more insights with fresh, nonchemically-altered samples.
  • NASA plans to send humans to a crater in the South Pole of the moon because it's safer there, and would allow for better communications with people back on Earth.

NASA releases stunning image of ISS crossing in front of the sun

Strangely, the sun showed no sunspots at the time the photo was taken.

Image source: Rainee Colacurcio
Surprising Science
  • The photo shows the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth, as it does every 90 minutes.
  • The photo is remarkable because it offers a glimpse of the star at a time when there were no sunspots.
  • In November, astronauts aboard the ISS plan to grow Española chili pepper plants.
Keep reading Show less

U.S. Air Force warns UFO enthusiasts against storming Area 51

Jokesters and serious Area 51 raiders would be met with military force.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook joke event to "raid Area 51" has already gained 1,000,000 "going" attendees.
  • The U.S. Air Force has issued an official warning to potential "raiders."
  • If anyone actually tries to storm an American military base, the use of deadly force is authorized.
Keep reading Show less