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.