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Chemo-free cancer treatment could exploit our body’s natural cell recycling system

Published Nov 23rd, 2018 6:29PM EST

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If you are diagnosed with cancer today there are often several treatment options, with your doctor forming a plan of attack that will feature multiple approaches. Chemotherapy is one of the most popular weapons against cancer, but new research suggests it may be possible to get chemo-like results without actually putting a patient through a chemotherapy routine.

In a new paper published in Nature Communications, scientists discuss the possibility of using the natural “kill code” of human cells to fight tumors. That code, which is used by our body to recycle cells and kills them off when they are old, isn’t used by cancer cells and that allows the bad cells to fester and spread.

Past studies pointed to this mechanism at work in healthy cells but figuring out exactly how it works took some time. This latest research suggests that the cell-killing molecules that carry out this duty could be used against cancer cells in order to send them into an irreversible self-destruct mode.

“Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome,” Dr. Marcus Peters, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “We can use these small RNAs directly, introduce them into cells and trigger the kill switch.”

This approach, which the researchers say is “following nature’s lead,” could be incredibly beneficial for cancer patients. Attacking cancer with foreign substances is risky because it can cause other problems, but by using the cell’s own mechanisms against it, the cancer kills itself and should avoid affecting other healthy cells.

Going forward, researchers hope to be able to engineer the molecules to fight cancers and, if all goes well, eventually develop a therapy to fight tumors with it.