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ROCHESTER, Minn. — In a major breakthrough in the battle against cancer, researchers believe they've found a way to retrain cancerous cells to die in the same way healthy cells do.
A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, reveals the discovery of a potential "off switch" for cancerous cells. The key: biological processors called microRNAs.
When healthy cells grow old, microRNAs act as end-of-life caregivers of sorts, feeding the cells a special protein that stops division — thus allowing the cell to die. The problem with cancerous cells, however, is that they don't receive enough of that protein to stop division — allowing the cells to divide out of control and form tumors, according to researchers.
So the team decided to see what would happen if they injected microRNAs directly into cancerous cells. Surprisingly, by adding a complete dose of microRNAs to the mix, the protein levels returned to normal and the cancerous cells stopped dividing.
In short, they began to act as normal cells again.
It represents an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software, for turning off cancer.
–Panos Anastasiadis, Mayo Clinic
"We should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function," Mayo Clinic professor Panos Anastasiadis told the Telegraph. "It represents an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software, for turning off cancer."
Even more promising: when scientists tested the method on particularly aggressive forms of cancer in the lab, it appeared to be very effective.
"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," Henry Scowcroft with the Cancer Research UK told the Telegraph. "But it's a significant step forward in understanding how certain cells in our body know when to grow and when to stop."
The hope is that eventually the "off switch" method could target and stop tumors from growing, eliminating the need for chemotherapy — which kills healthy cells as well as cancerous cells, researchers said.