Let’s Kill Those Cancer Cells!

Spreading cancer. Courtesy of allthingsbeautiful.com

Spreading cancer. Courtesy of allthingsbeautiful.com

Enter any molecular biology department and you’re bound to find someone working on cancer. Various treatments exist and many cancers are no longer considered fatal, but there are still plenty of questions.

There’s one less question as of last Tuesday (well, ignoring the fact that this answer brings lots of new questions with it).  A new discovery by Princeton molecular biologists and chemists may pave the way for revolutionary new cancer treatments.

So what did they figure out? Quiescent or dormant cells have long been considered inactive. But according to the team’s paper, published in the latest edition of the journal PloS Biology, this isn’t actually true.

The team focused on fibroblasts, structural cells that connect cells and help heal wounds. Among other activities, they found that quiescent fibroblasts use the pentose phosphate pathway, which is necessary for creating DNA and RNA.

“The thing that’s really exciting is that if you inhibit the pentose phosphate pathway in quiescent cells, they die. And this is a big deal because they’re like little supermen,” MOL professor and coauthor Hilary Coller told centraljersey.com.

Why does this matter? Cancer uses quiescent cells. Details after the jump.

Current cancer treatments work by simply killing cells. That’s why chemotherapy patients become so sick and lose their hair. Targeting cancerous cells can be tricky. Most chemotherapy treatments attempt to target cancerous cells by focusing on dividing cells, since cancer is a disease of uncontrolled growth. But this approach completely ignores quiescent cells.

Cancers often remain in the body because some of the cancerous cells have been hidden in quiescence. But at some point, these cells may leave quiescence and the disease returns. Quiescent cells are much harder to kill than active cells – they can even withstand being treated with hydrogen peroxide. Thus blocking the pentose phosphate pathway in these cells could be the key to killing them and preventing cancer relapses.

The trick is, however, to target cancerous quiescent cells while avoiding healthy quiescent cells. Coller suggested this could be done through nanotechnology or by engineering a bacteria to seek out these cells and block the pathway.

But of course, more research is needed.