New Cancer Treatment: Make Them Self-Destruct
Just like the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek, cells have a self-destruct sequence as well, and recently, scientists have figured out how to activate it, meaning possible new ways to treat cancer.
The BAX protein is a death protein that triggers apoptosis. Apotosis is programmed cell death that can occur in multicellular organisms and can include cell shrinkage, nulclear fragmentation, and even chormosomal DNA fragmentation.
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"Having identified the 'on switch' for the BAX protein several years ago, we now have a small molecule that can directly turn this death protein on," says senior author of the study Loren Walensky.
By identifying a specific trigger site on the protein, Walensky's team figured out how to turn it from dormant to active. The BAX protein then attacks the cell's mitochondria and releases signals for the cell to digest its own pieces.
To find the trigger site, the team looked through 750,000 small molecules from commercially available libraries.
"A small molecule has never been identified before to directly activate BAX and induce cell death in precisely this way," said Evripidis Gavathiotis, first author of the paper. "Because BAX is a critical control point for regulating cell death, being able to target it selectively opens the door to a new therapeutic strategy for cancer and perhaps other diseases of cellular excess."
This would mean identifying cancerous cells and flipping on the BAX proteins so that they self-destruct. Gavathiotis believes that normal, healthy cells will be able to withstand the BAX with other proteins, but that cancerous cells are already under increased stress, and may succumb to their own undoing.