Sunday, October 9, 2011

Starvation might be the answer to treat breast cancer

A novel mechanism in order to kill cancer cells has yielded interesting results. When a process is blocked that causes cells to eat part of itself, tumour growth can be inhibited. This process, called autophagy, is important to allocate cellular nutrients elsewhere, so they can be harnessed for survival, for example in the case of starvation. Cancer cells abuse this process to allocate lots of resources to cellular growth. Blocking autophagy in breast cancer made tumour cells sensitive to tamoxifen, a drug often used in this type of cancer. Because resistance to tamoxifen is a major problem, the discovery could lead to better treatment of breast cancer. In addition, cancer cells that harness autophagy to stimulate growth are also found in the liver and pancreas.

Scientists have found they can block autophagy with a molecule that is able to turn off the expression of genes: a microRNA (MiR). These molecules have a structure that resembles DNA, and is able to bind to a specific form of genetic code, which is used as a template to translate from genetic code into proteins, and is called mRNA. Because the MiR binds to the mRNA, it is targeted for degradation, so the 'messaging' function of the mRNA molecule is lost, which reduced protein manufacturing, thus basically 'silencing' the respective gene. By turning genes off, MiRs can have a big impact on cellular physiology. In this case, a MiR with number 101 was found to be effective in inhibiting the autophagy process. Cancers of the liver, pancreas and breast often find a way to get rid of MiR-101, which paves the way for abusing autophagy for cellular growth.

Cells have specialized compartments that are used for the degradation of all sorts of proteins and molecules. These so-called lysosomes contain enzymes that break down molecules, so that their building blocks can be recycled and put to use for constructing useful proteins and molecules. This is basically a recycling process, one that is needed to help a cell cope with changing its behaviour.

In their experiments, the researchers noted that when MiR-101 was administered to cancer cells, they were able to block the autophagy process. In addition, breast cancer cells became more sensitive towards tamoxifen treatment. This shows that blocking autophagy is a good strategy to explore in cancer treatment. This adds to a set of therapies that are already used to combat cancer. Perhaps adding a autophagy blocker to the mix can make various 'cocktails' used to treat cancer more effective.

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