Within each and every cell of your body is an embedded kill switch reports a Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study. Its function serves to cause the self-destruction of cells that become cancerous. When the cell is under threat of mutating into cancer it punches in the kill code (so to speak) to destroy itself and in the process that kills the cancer cell as well.
“Ever since life became multicellular, which could be more than two billion years ago, it had to deal with preventing or fighting cancer… So nature must have developed a failsafe mechanism to prevent cancer or fight it the moment it forms. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be here.”
This breakthrough research began with Peter and his team questioning how humankind has managed to evolve and survive for billions of years without something like cancer having killed us off by now. They wondered what sort of natural mechanisms could have developed to protect multicellular organisms from cancer before the adaptive immune system evolved.
“My goal was not to come up with a new artificial toxic substance. I wanted to follow nature’s lead,” Peter explains. “I want to utilize a mechanism that nature developed… We knew they would be very hard to find. The kill mechanism would only be active in a single cell the moment it becomes cancerous. It was a needle in a haystack.”
For eight long years, they searched for the answer until they succeeded. Two research papers have been published explaining their findings. The first one (2017 eLife) describes the kill code. The second one (2018 Nature Communications) describes their investigation on how the mechanism works.
The information from both studies combined reveals that cancer cells die when they introduced certain small RNA molecules. Furthermore, cancer cells treated with the RNA molecules never become resistant because the molecules simultaneously eliminate multiple genes cancer cells need for survival. Therefore, it is a potentially bulletproof treatment if the kill code can be synthetically duplicated. The scientists say the inability of cancer cells to develop resistance to the molecules is a first.
“Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome. We can use these small RNAs directly, introduce them into cells and trigger the kill switch,” said Peter.
To get into the details of it, what they found was that a sequence of just six nucleotides (6mers) present in small RNAs made them toxic to cancer cells. Nucleotides are organic molecules that are the building blocks of DNA and RNA. They are G, C, A or T (in DNA), or U (in RNA). This evolved more than 800 million years ago. The toxic small RNA molecules also are triggered by chemotherapy.
“Based on what we have learned in these two studies, we can now design artificial microRNAs that are much more powerful in killing cancer cells than even the ones developed by nature,” Peter said. “We absolutely need to turn this into a novel form of therapy.” Although, he stresses that the reality of the current situation is that a potential therapy is many years off. They are still exploring multiple ways to trigger the embedded kill code to kill cancer cells. The trigger is the key and it is yet to be found. But, there is hope because they know the key exists.
It is truly exciting the way these scientists have harnessed an ancient mechanism that nature developed over millions of years of evolution. This shows how cancer scientists need to listen to nature more because it can work and has worked for billions of years already. “Our research may be tapping into one of nature’s original kill switches, and we hope the impact will affect many cancers,” he says. “Our findings could be disruptive.”
This video touches upon the future in synthetic biology which this self-destructing cancer cure is a part of. It’s very exciting news: