‘Reprogramming’ cancer cells can reverse tumor – study

© Suzanne Plunkett
A team of scientists from Mayo Clinic in Florida have managed to reverse the progress of cancer by “reprogramming” its cells preventing further tumor growth.

It is possible to “turn off” the deadly disease by restoring the function which prevents cells from growing and multiplying uncontrollably, the study published in Nature Cell Biology suggests.

“We have found a new mechanism by which normal cells undergo transition to become tumorigenic,” said Panos Anastasiadis, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Cancer Biology at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus.

In their normal state, cells are prevented from an uncontrolled growth by a special “glue” which holds them together. This glue is controlled by biological microprocessors called microRNAs. MicroRNA uses a special protein PLEKHA7 as an instrument of regulation.

The scientists discovered that removal of that mechanism switches on cancer development, and vice versa – the mechanism can be restored by delivering MicroRNA molecules to cancer cells, reversing the spread of the disease.

“These [cancer] cells are already missing PLEKHA7. Restoring either PLEKHA7 levels, or the levels of miRNAs in these cells turns them back to a benign state,” Anastasiadis said, as cited by the Telegraph.

The researchers also revealed that the glue, which primarily consists of two proteins – E-cadherin and p120 catenin – actually promotes cancer when it is deprived of PLEKHA7. That means that some molecules have “two faces” – a “good one” when they have a positive function under normal circumstances and a “bad one” when they become harmful due to deviations.

“I think for therapy it is very important because it shows the way we can turn cancerous cells back to a more normal state,” Anastasiadis said.

Experts highlight the importance of the study, but are skeptical about the possible effectiveness of such treatment.

“This important study solves a long-standing biological mystery, but we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, the Telegraph reports.

“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,” he added.

I think in reality it is unlikely that you could reverse tumours by reversing just one mechanism, but it’s a very interesting finding,” concluded Dr. Chris Bakal from the Institute for Cancer Research in London.