Lung cancer will kill about 160,000 Americans this year.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Florida say that they have found and been able to successfully use a trigger in cancer cells to stop cancer cells from multiplying—in essence, turning the cancer cells back into normal cells.
So far it has only been tested on human cells in the lab, but the researchers are hopeful that the technique could one day be used to target tumours so that cancer could be ‘switched off’ without the need for harsh chemotherapy or surgery.
"We should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function,” said Profesor Panos Anastasiadis, of the Department for Cancer Biology.
The discovery was unexpected but obviously very promising news.
The scientists discovered that the glue which holds cells together is regulated by biological microprocessors called microRNAs. When everything is working normally the microRNAs instruct the cells to stop dividing when they have replicated sufficiently. They do this by triggering production of a protein called PLEKHA7 which breaks the cell bonds. But in cancer that process does not work.
Scientists discovered they could switch on cancer in cells by removing the microRNAs from cells and preventing them from producing the protein.
And, crucially they found that they could reverse the process switching the brakes back on and stopping cancer. MicroRNAs are small molecules which can be delivered directly to cells or tumours so an injection to increase levels could switch off disease.
While this alone is not the Holy Grail cure for cancer, it is an enormous discovery that might, with the proper delivery system, really allow sufferers of more aggressive cancers more time, and possibly help in facilitating victories in the fight against cancer.
Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “This important study solves a long-standing biological mystery, but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves.
“There’s a long way to go before we know whether these findings, in cells grown in a laboratory, will help treat people with cancer. But it’s a significant step forward in understanding how certain cells in our body know when to grow, and when to stop. Understanding these key concepts is crucial to help continue the encouraging progress against cancer we’ve seen in recent years.”