A team of scientists have discovered a ‘kill switch’ in the human body which they believe can be harnessed to destroy any type of cancer.
The group of researchers from Northwestern University in America have spent the past eight years analysing and studying the complex set of genes and the many regulatory molecules which make up the human body.
Through their studies the team found a pathway they believe can ‘kill’ any type of cancerous cell within the body.
The mechanism the researchers discovered involves the creation of what is known as siRNAs, which stands for ‘small interfering Ribonucleic Acid’.
These small RNA molecules interfere with various genes which are essential to the rapid reproduction of fast-growing malignant cells while having very little effect on normal and healthy cells.
Studying these molecules over two recent studies, research leader Marcus Peter and his team have identified the series of events these siRNAs trigger as well as the six-nucleotide-long sequences needed to trigger the cascade.
They then named this series of events ‘Death By Induced Survival Gene Elimination’, or ‘DISE’ for short.
During their research, the team found that cancerous cells treated with particular human RNA molecules never become resistant to them and that this ‘kill mechanism’ actually predates the human body’s immune system by hundreds of millions of years.
In a statement released last year, Peter explained how these molecules could provide a fail-safe way to protect us from cancer.
This could be a major breakthrough. We think this is how multicellular organisms eliminated cancer before the development of the adaptive immune system, which is about 500 million years old.
It could be a fail-safe that forces rogue cells to commit suicide. We believe it is active in every cell protecting us from cancer.
Ever since life became multicellular, which could be more than two billion years ago, it had to deal with preventing or fighting cancer, so nature must have developed a fail safe mechanism to prevent cancer or fight it the moment it forms. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be here.
We knew they would be very hard to find. The kill mechanism would only be active in a single cell the moment it becomes cancerous. It was a needle in a haystack.
Having spent eight years searching for these phantom molecules, Peter is grateful for the discovery having been frustrated by what he sees as a lack of progress when it comes to solid cancer treatment.
He explained why in his statement:
The problem is cancer cells are so diverse that even though the drugs, designed to target single cancer driving genes, often initially are effective, they eventually stop working and patients succumb to the disease.
If you had an aggressive, metastasizing form of the disease 50 years ago, you were busted back then and you are still busted today. Improvements are often due to better detection methods and not to better treatments.
Our research may be tapping into one of nature’s original kill switches, and we hope the impact will affect many cancers. Our findings could be disruptive.
Peter is now working on refining the treatment to increase its effectiveness and capability through further research.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 8pm).
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.