Curing any disease is difficult, from sickle cell to HIV. Cancer, being an umbrella term for 200 or so different biological afflictions, is notorious in this sense – but thanks to the advancement of science over the years, survival rates are going up, and innovative cures are increasing in number.
This technique has been rather dramatically described by Northwestern University scientist and the study’s lead author, Marcus Peter. In a statement he explained that, for the cancer, “it’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time.”
“You cannot survive,” he adds, somewhat superfluously. So what exactly is this game-changing discovery?
First, it’s worth remembering that cancer is unchecked cell division and growth, triggered by genetic damage. It’s a malfunctioning biological program that appears to be extremely primitive, one that may have long-ago been a self-preservation response to an ancient disease.
What something like this needs is a “kill switch,” some sort of command that will stop these cells from dividing ad infinitum. This kill switch is precisely what Peter and his colleagues appear to have identified.
After perusing through the human genome, they found a handful of sequences that acted rather strangely when converted from DNA into RNA – a simpler form of biological “data storage” that is thought to have emerged before DNA.
These RNA strands, known as small interfering RNAs, have identified by researchers before. They’re notable because instead of helping genes influence the organism, they seem to actively suppress the gene they were transformed from.
The RNA strands isolated by Peter’s team don’t just suppress their original genes, however; they also trigger off cancerous cells when reinserted back into them, thanks to a similar genetic suppression mechanism.
The team found no exceptions to this rule, and any cancel cell they tested self-destructed. Importantly, cancer doesn’t seem to be able to build up a resistance to the RNA over time either, something the team describes as a world first.
The team posited that this kill switch has been present in life ever since the first multicellular organism appeared more than 2 billion years ago. If it didn’t, then cancer would have wiped out complex creatures long ago. Sadly, along the way – perhaps as immune systems became more adaptive to infections – plenty of animals appear to have lost the ability to use these RNA strands.
This revelatory research suggests that, finally, this kill switch could be reactivated in humans, potentially ushering in a new age of chemotherapy. Human trials are a fair way off for now, but one of the team’s papers reveals that in cancer-riddled mice, use of these RNA strands killed off much of the cancer with no harm to the mice themselves.
Yes, cancer is a many-headed beast, one that robs the world of millions of lives every single year. Treatments can vary wildly from patient to patient, from disease to disease. You can cure some quite easily with early detection, whereas others have a very low survival rate even today.
Chemotherapy has some dreadful side-effects, and even the nascent fields of gene-editing immunotherapy – which provokes the body’s own defense mechanisms into fighting the cancer – isn’t side-effect free.
Now imagine if this RNA technique works on human cancers of any type, to no major detriment. It would be a cure for all cancers; a genuine revolution in biomedical sciences.
“Our findings could be disruptive,” Peter concludes.