Every day, millions of cells in our bodies “kill themselves” and are quickly removed.
While the mechanism may sound melodramatic, in reality it’s for our own good. This is because the process ensures potentially harmful cells destroy themselves and, as a consequence, we’re protected from disease.
Cancer cells, however, can protect themselves from self-destruction by ignoring our immune system’s cell death signals — and that’s precisely what makes them so deadly.
As advanced as medicine is today, the incidence of cancer diagnoses continues to rise.
Scientists at the International Agency for Cancer Research estimate that, this year, around 18 million people will be diagnosed with cancer, and around 10 million people will die of tumours— while these are the highest figures to date, researchers all over the world are looking for new therapeutic options.
Researchers have deciphered the kill code within our RNA
Scientists from Northwestern University in the US recently discovered a kind of genetic “kill code” in cells that could theoretically be used to treat cancer without chemotherapy.
Last year, scientists led by study author Marcus E. Peter discovered that every human cell in the body has a code that can trigger programmed cell death but, at the time, the team was unable to decipher the mechanism behind this “kill code” in their study.
However, as the researchers recently reported in journal Nature Communications, they have now succeeded in figuring out how this code works. The kill code could be an important step towards making tumour cells vulnerable to attack without the use of chemical substances.
According to the new study, the code is available as information in ribonucleic acid (RNA) and in microRNAs. The small, harmful RNA molecules can effectively kill cancer cells, a process normally activated by chemotherapy.
The MicroRNAs can lead affected cells to cell suicide
The researchers found that cancers were unable to develop resistance to the molecules, turning the mechanism into a potentially viable treatment against tumours — especially if the code could be multiplied.
“Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome,” wrote Marcus E. Peter. Micro RNAs can be used to push the affected cells to cell death.
In a previous study, Peter was able to prove that cancer cells die when certain micro-RNA molecules are used, while in another, he and his team also demonstrated how RNA can be converted into micro-RNA.
It turns out we already have the deadliest weapon against cancer in every one of our cells
It was already clear to the scientist how much potential the approach could have because the molecules specifically destroy several genes that cancer cells need to survive.
“It’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time,” said the researcher in a statement. “You cannot survive.”
Since chemotherapy has serious side effects, the aim of the study was not to develop a new toxic substance; according to the researcher, he wanted to use a mechanism that had developed naturally — something already inside us that only needed “activating”.
The next step will be to incorporate this mechanism into a new therapeutic method. Considering that the method hasn’t even been tested on animals yet let alone humans, this could well take years but it may be a revolutionary step in the fight against cancer.
This post originally appeared on Business Insider Deutschland and has been translated from German.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.