Scientists Find Cancer's Self-Destruct Button
Does cancer have a self-destruct button? Medical researchers have theorized a specific process for inducing cell death in cancer cells for decades, and now researchers from University of Texas at Austin have demonstrated this method to be successful in destroying cancer cells from the inside out.
These molecules, called synthetic ion transporters, can induce programmed cell death, or apoptosis, by disturbing the cell's homeostasis. They increase the concentration of intracellular sodium and chloride ions, which destroys the carefully maintained balance of concentrations within the cell. This method of inducing apoptosis was hypothesized twenty years ago, but now, for the first time, the research team proved that the change in ion concentration occurred before the initialization of the cell's self-destruct sequence, rather than as a side effect of cell death.
"We have demonstrated that this mechanism is viable, that this idea that's been around for over two decades is scientifically valid, and that's exciting. We were able to show sodium is really going in, chloride is really going in. There is now, I think, very little ambiguity as to the validity of this two-decades-old hypothesis," said Jonathan Sessler, professor at The University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study.
Although this method has been demonstrated to kill healthy cells as well as cancer cells, this study is still a major breakthrough in the fight to cure cancer. Certain mutations in cancer cells, particularly ones that affect ion transport, can block apoptosis. But this method was able to bypass those mutations and force the cancer cells to commit suicide, so to speak. Furthermore, the researchers believe that they will be able to modify the transporters to only kill cancer cells relatively easily, by binding them to synthetic site-directing molecules.
"We have thus closed the loop and shown that this mechanism of chloride influx into the cell by a synthetic transporter does indeed trigger apoptosis," said Sessler. "This is exciting because it points the way towards a new approach to anticancer drug development."