Researchers Find Way To Make Cancer Cells 'Self-Destruct'

A new hope for cancer treatment is alive after scientists identified a new way for cancerous tumours to over-stress and self-destruct.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania found tumour cells can be killed off by blocking a specific protein. Obstructing ATF4 forces cancer cells to make too much of another type of protein called 4E-BP, which stresses the cells out so much that they die.

The technique was successfully trialled on mouse models of lymphoma and colorectal cancer, as well as in human bowel, breast and lymphoma cells grown in a lab, with the findings published in the journal Nature Cell Biology on Tuesday.

Because the experimental compounds that block the synthesis of ATF4 have already been developed, researchers hope this new discovery will fast-track new ideas for cancer therapeutics.

Photo: Penn Medicine

For years, scientists have been trying to target a gene known as MYC, which controls growth in normal cells.

If this gene mutates, it can malfunction and set off a chain reaction, which can cause and spread cancer.

They have now found the ATF4 protein controls a chemical pathway that works in conjunction with the MYC gene, managing the rate at which cells make 4E-BP, the key protein which can stress out the cells and cause them to die.

"What we've learned is that we need to go further downstream to block tumour growth in a way that cancer cells can't easily escape, and our study identifies the target to do just that," lead researcher Constantinos Koumenis said.

But the research team has confirmed there is still a long way to go.

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"This shows us the potential impacts of targeting ATF4 in MYC-dependent tumours, something we're already studying. We're also working to confirm this approach will not cause any serious off-target effects," said author Feven Tameire said.

The focus will now turn to why ATF4 does what it does, which may reveal other potential targets in the chain.