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  • What is the Cancer Kill Switch?

What is the Cancer Kill Switch?

Dec 10 2018 Read 919 Times

Cancer is the world's biggest killer, claiming over 8 million lives a year. Now, a team of researchers from Northwestern University has broken new ground in the search for a cure and discovered a cancer "kill switch" that could hold the key to unlocking self-destruct pathways that actively destroy cancer cells.  

After almost a decade of analysing the human genome and its complex regulatory molecules, research leader Marcus Peter and his colleagues have honed in on a mechanism that proactively creates tiny RNA molecules. Also known as siRNAs, the molecules obstruct the actions of several genes associated with the growth of malignant cells, though don't attack healthy cells. The process is known as DISE, an acronym for Death By Induced Survival gene Elimination, and could prove to be a powerful weapon in the fight against cancer.

Harnessing the power of DISE

Having identified the six-nucleotide-long sequences associated with DISE, the team are now exploring ways to harness the "kill switch" and use naturally produced RNA molecules to supress cancerous tumours.

"We think this is how multicellular organisms eliminated cancer before the development of the adaptive immune system, which is about 500 million years old," explains Peter. "It could be a fail-safe that forces rogue cells to commit suicide. We believe it is active in every cell protecting us from cancer."

Cancelling out chemotherapy

One of the biggest breakthroughs the team made is how the human body produces the free siRNAs needed to activate DISE. To do this Peter and his team analysed a process that sees cells divide a long RNA strand into multiple siRNAs. They then used this insight to prove that the same cellular machinery can be used to break down other protein-coding RNAs into cancer killing DISE siRNAs.

"Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome,” asserts Peter.

He also predicts that where cutting-edge medications and advanced gene therapy approaches fail, the "kill switch" could be used to successfully target aggressive cancers like lung, brain, ovarian and pancreatic. This is because unlike other treatments, the DISE pathway simultaneously targets the activity of multiple genes which completely obliterates the growth of malignant cells.

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