It is now possible to induce cancer cell suicide without damaging healthy cells. Researchers have found a compound that directly makes cancer cells commit suicide while sparing healthy cells. The new treatment was directed against acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells but may also have the potential for attacking other types of cancers.
Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, NY, tested the molecule, called BAX Trigger Site Activator 1 (BTSA1), on AML cells. They note that BTSA1 “promptly induces” a type of cell suicide called apoptosis “in AML cell lines and patient samples.”
Evripidis Gavathiotis, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and of medicine and senior author of the study, said, “We’re hopeful that the targeted compounds we’re developing will prove more effective than current anti-cancer therapies by directly causing cancer cells to self-destruct. Ideally, our compounds would be combined with other treatments to kill cancer cells faster and more efficiently and with fewer adverse effects, which are an all-too-common problem with standard chemotherapies.”
This compound combats cancer by triggering apoptosis, an important process that rids the body of unwanted or malfunctioning cells. Apoptosis trims excess tissue during embryonic development, for example, and some chemotherapy drugs indirectly induce apoptosis by damaging DNA in cancer cells.
Apoptosis occurs when BAX, the “executioner protein” in cells, is activated by “pro-apoptotic” proteins in the cell. Once activated, BAX molecules home in on and punch lethal holes in mitochondria, the parts of cells that produce energy. But all too often, cancer cells manage to prevent BAX from killing them.
The team evaluated the candidates and found that BTSA1 was the most powerful activator of BAX. It led to “rapid and extensive apoptosis when added to several different human AML cell lines,” says lead author Denis Reyna, a doctoral student in Prof. Gavathiotis’ group.
Importantly, the mice treated with BTSA1 showed no evidence of toxicity. This compound can be very useful for a country like India, which is seeing a growth in cancer cases. The study was published in the journal Cancer Cell.