Cancer cells can be induced to effectively “commit suicide” by feeding them a recipe to produce a natural bacteria toxin.
This is the finding of a team of researchers from Israel, who have demonstrated the concept in a mouse model of the skin cancer melanoma.
They showed that a single injection was capable of killing 44–66 percent of skin cancer cells targeted.
The toxin recipe was encoded into messenger RNA molecules that were then packed in nanoparticles coated in antibodies designed to ensure they only affected the cancer cells.
In this way, the treatment approach — if shown to also work in humans — could overcome one of the main limitations of chemotherapy, which is not selective and causes side effects.
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The study was undertaken by biochemist Professor Dan Peer of Israel’s Tel Aviv University and his colleagues.
Prof. Peer explained: “Many bacteria secrete toxins. The most famous of these is probably the botulinum toxins injected in Botox treatments.
“Another classic treatment technique is chemotherapy, involving the delivery of small molecules through the bloodstream to effectively kill cancer cells.
“However, chemotherapy has a major downside — it is not selective, and also kills healthy cells.”
Prof. Peer continued: “Our idea was to deliver safe mRNA molecules encoded for a bacterial toxin directly to the cancer cells.”
This approach, he explained, works by “inducing these cells to actually produce the toxic protein that would later kill them. It’s like placing a Trojan horse inside the cancer cell”.
In their experiments, the team encoded the genetic information needed to manufacture the toxin produced by the pseudomonas genus of bacteria into messenger RNA (mRNA).
(Pseudomonas includes 313 species of gram-negative bacteria that have a great deal of metabolic diversity and are thus found in various settings — with some living in soil, others in plants, and others still even able to infect humans.)
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The mRNA molecules were wrapped up in lipid nanoparticles that were then coated in antibodies designed to be selective to melanoma cancer cells.
Prof. Peer said: “We used pseudomonas bacteria and the melanoma cancer, but this was only a matter of convenience.
“Many anaerobic bacteria — especially those that live in the ground — secrete toxins, and most of these toxins can probably be used with our method.
“This is our ‘recipe’, and we know how to deliver it directly to the target cells with our nanoparticles.”
Prof. Peer continued: “When the cancer cell reads the ‘recipe’ at the other end, it starts to produce the toxin as if it were the bacteria itself, and this self-produced toxin eventually kills it.
“Thus, with a simple injection to the tumour bed, we can cause cancer cells to ‘commit suicide‘, without damaging healthy cells.”
He concluded: “Moreover, cancer cells cannot develop resistance to our technology, as often happens with chemotherapy — because we can always use a different natural toxin.”
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Theranostics.
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