Researchers report they have found an effective way to induce apoptosis, or cell death, and to suppress cancer growth. The team is targeting the BaK protein and has found a way to transform it “into a killer protein” that kills cancer cells. The hope is that this approach will lead to developing drugs that will be effective in fighting treatment-resistant cancers like mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer, like many cancers, is resistant to standard treatments, and, thus, to apoptosis. Apoptosis is often referred to as cell suicide because when cells are damaged they sacrifice themselves to prevent damaging additional cells. However, in cancer, the process goes amok and the diseased cells continue to divide and grow.
According to researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, of Melbourne, Australia, the BaK protein, which is central to apoptosis, is present but inactive in healthy cells. But when a cell receives the trigger to die, BaK is activated and helps destroy the cell. In cancer cells that are notorious for tricking the body’s natural defense mechanisms, however, BaK is not activated and apoptosis does not occur leaving the cells unchecked.
The researchers set out to find a way to mimic the action of BaK, or to turn on the trigger to kill cancer cells. They inadvertently found an antibody they were using to simply study BaK, actually bound to the protein and triggered its activation.
“There is great interest in developing drugs that trigger Bak activation to treat diseases such as cancer where apoptosis has gone awry,” said Dr. Ruth Kluck, BSc, PhD, QLD, lead researcher and Laboratory Head of the Molecular Genetics of Cancer. “This discovery gives us a new starting point for developing therapies that directly activate Bak and cause cell death.”
In fact, the researchers are already collaborating with others to develop their antibody into a drug that can take advantage of the BaK protein.
Finding an effective way to prevent cancer cells from evading cancer death by artificially triggering it could increase the efficacy of existing treatments leading to increased survival in mesothelioma patients. Mesothelioma is diagnosed in nearly 3,000 Americans each year, and the same number die from the cancer.
The full report can be found in the May 24 issue of Nature Communications.