Targeting cancer's back-up generator could help treat the disease
As well as the ingenuity, dedication and skill of their staff, modern hospitals can’t function properly without a reliable electricity supply. This is so critical that hospitals have a back-up generator to keep their life-saving systems working in an emergency..
In a similar way, our cells also have their own emergency back-up systems. Thanks to years of painstaking research, we now know that our cells have evolved multiple sets of similar internal machinery to carry out key processes like repairing DNA, generating energy, and sensing signals from the outside world.
This redundancy may seem wasteful, but it’s actually extremely important – it’s the key to life’s adaptability, allowing cells to take repeated knocks and yet still keep ticking over in changing and challenging circumstances.
But these vital fail-safe mechanisms come with a heavy price. As well as keeping healthy cells going during hard times, they also provide cancers with a path to invincibility. Tumour cells exploit these ‘back-up’ systems, becoming grossly abnormal while still carrying on dividing, shrugging off even the harshest of cancer treatments.
Thankfully, researchers are discovering how to target cancer cells that have become dependent on their reserve systems. This concept – dubbed ‘synthetic lethality’ – is a hot topic in the search for better cancer treatments. The term may sound familiar to regular blog readers as we’ve written about it several times before
This week, researchers at our Beatson Institute in Glasgow – working in collaboration with scientists in the US, Israel and Australia – have published a paper in the journal Nature that could lead to new ways to treat kidney cancer, a disease that seldom gets much publicity despite affecting nearly 9,000 people a year in the UK.
Let’s take a look at the new study, and how it fits into an emerging success story in cancer research.