11th Jun 2018

Shutting down energy supply is the new tactic against cancer cells

11th Jun 2018

Curated by Nicolas Gutierrez

Targeting cancer cells' power supply is a new tactic for therapies

Scientists discovered that a drug used for some rare cancers can shut down cells' energy supplies. This would help to target a wider range of cancers with less intrusive therapies.

In 10 seconds? Researchers have found a drug that kills cancer cells by attacking their energy supply. Targeting these cellular power stations, or mitochondria, could be the way to stop tumours in their tracks. (Read the science)

So, what's the discovery? A new trick from an experimental drug: ONC201 is an anti-tumour molecule was shown to be effective against some rare types of breast cancer, including triple negative. It can induce the process of natural cell death, called apoptosis, but research has shown it has a more aggressive side that could lead to wider use. (More on ONC201)

And what is this aggressive side? To the surprise of researchers, the drug can also deplete DNA levels in breast cancer cells' power stations. This method of sabotage could be used to target other cancers and a number of clinical trials are under way. (Read the paper)

So, sabotage is the new strategy? Yes! Mitochondria produce most of the energy a cell needs to survive. So, shutting the power stations down shuts the cell down as well. This is a new strategy for researchers against cancer cells that are dependent on mitochondrial energy and not glycolysis, which is another process of energy production cancer cells use. (More on mitochondria and cancer)

Why is it so difficult to kill cancer cells? Because they are very resilient and find ways to block their own death. As a result, they keep growing and multiplying, like an army of zombies. Weakening their mitochondria is an alternative way to stop them. (Read about cancer's survival tactics)

How else can we sabotage cancer cells? Another method is to directly reduce the number of mitochondria, using an enzyme called RIPK1, which causes the degradation of these cellular power stations. The process leads to less energy production, leading to their death. (Find out more)

Do we have the know-how to do this? Good question! Scientists seek to target cancer cells' mitochondria without harming healthy tissue. Trials focusing on other aspects of ONC201 showed that it spares normal cells whilst reducing hard-to-treat tumours. Molecules that can do this job are an ideal alternative to chemotherapy, radiotherapy and invasive operations – and offer hope of a better quality of life to patients.

Targeting cancer cells’ mitochondria with medicinal tea

A traditional Chinese medicinal plant may be another powerful weapon against cancer.

Swertia mussotii, known in Tibet as zang yin chen, is grown in the Qinhai-Tibet plateau.

It's traditionally used to treat fever and hepatitis, while other species of the Swertiagenus have reported for their anti-diabetic properties.

Recent research has shown that this traditional plant badly affects the mitochondria in gastric cancer cells, by unleashing free radicals. Often named as the villains in our bodies by the wellness industry, these molecules can wreak biological havoc.

In this case, however, they damage cancers cells to the point that they trigger self-destruction, providing a potential route for therapy!

(Psst, Nicolas distilled 13 research papers to save you 698.7 min)

Curated by

Nicolas Gutierrez

Nicolas is a science journalist based in France. He completed his PhD at the University of Bordeaux specialising in mitochondria and genetics.

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