Researchers at Northwestern University School of Medicine have discovered a kill code that’s present in all of the body’s cells. The self-destruct mechanism is triggered when the cell senses it is mutating into cancer.
RNA (ribonucleic acids) and ancient microRNAs are the heroes. The microRNAs evolved some 800 million years ago to protect our forefathers and foremothers from cancer. Among other functions, they control stem cell growth in our eyes.
“It’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time. You cannot survive.” Marcus E. Peters
The study team says the toxic RNA molecules self-destruct when exposed to chemotherapy. This kill switch is a breakthrough because cancer cannot become immune or resistant to the toxic RNAs.
This knowledge was the product of two studies by lead author, Marcus E. Peter, the Tomas D. Spies Professor of Cancer Metabolism at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Peter then tested all 4,096 different combinations of nucleotide bases and discovered microRNAs expressed in the body to fight cancer using this 6-mers (k-mers) to kill cancer cells.
In the second study, Peter also showed the cells that chop a gene into small pieces act like microRNAs and are highly toxic to cancer. Peter’s group found about three percent of all protein-coding large RNAs in the genome can be processed in this way.
“Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome. We can use these small RNAs directly, introduce them into cells and trigger the kill switch,” said lead author Marcus E. Peter.
The implications are huge because chemotherapy has numerous side effects, some are devastating to patients, and others can spur the development of secondary cancers, because they attack and alter the genome.
In the foundational research for this study (2017), Peter showed cancer cells die when he introduced certain small RNA molecules. https://elifesciences.org/articles/29702
“It’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time. You cannot survive,” he said.
As great as it feels to beat up cancer, the synthesis of the kill code as a form of therapy is many years off.
“Based on what we have learned in these two studies, we can now design artificial microRNAs that are much more powerful in killing cancer cells than even the ones developed by nature,” Peter said.
Exploring the Role of MicroRNAs in Cancer