The battle against cancer rages on. A new study suggests that turning cancer cells back to normal ones might be possible. Cancer is characterised by cells that deviate from the normal rule and divide uncontrollably; the researchers of the new study say that these cells can be triggered to become normal ones again. The findings have been published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.
The findings of the new study are described as being “an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer”, as per the statements of one of the authors, Panos Anastasiadis, a professor of cancer biology.
The study focused on the difference between normal cells and cancer ones in terms of how adhesion proteins interact with microRNAs (miRNAs) with respect to the cells’ functioning. Adhesion proteins cause cells to stick together to form tissues, while miRNAs are molecules that regulate gene expression governing cell programs. The adhesion of normal cells involves a specific group of miRNAs that suppresses genes that are known to promote cell growth. This system does not function properly in tumour cells though, such that growth becomes uncontrolled.
So, the scientists discovered that upon restoring the normal miRNA signals in the cancer cells, the deadly process could be reversed and growth was put under control again.
Another linked aspect of the finding involves adhesion proteins E-cadherin and p120 catenin. The researchers found that they both play a role in keeping normal cells within the usual patterns and, surprisingly, in triggering tumour growth as well. How do these molecules play such dual and contradicting roles? According to the researchers, the difference lies in another protein called PLEKHA7 which associates with the other two to maintain their “good face” and to suppress tumour. However, when PLEKHA7 is lost, the adhesion complex that keeps the E-cadherin and p120 on the good side is disturbed, causing miRNAs to become misregulated, and the two proteins change in their role and start promoting tumour.
“By administering the affected miRNAs in cancer cells to restore their normal levels, we should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function. Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising,” says Prof. Anastasiadis.