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.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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