Most cells in the body have a finite lifespan and eventually die, a process known as programmed cell death or apoptosis. Cancer cells, on the other hand, do not commit suicide and thus continue to divide and create new cells, leading to the development of a tumor mass as seen in breast, lung prostate cancers, for example, or over production e.g. of white blood cells in leukemia.
When chemotherapy or radiotherapy is administered, the goal is often to try and induce apoptosis, thereby leading to tumor shrinkage.
A recent study has shown that cancer cells can recover even after assault from chemotherapy, thereby creating drug resistance and blocking the effects of the treatment. In an article published in the British Journal of Cancer, some Chinese researchers treated human cervical, skin, liver and breast cancer
cells each with three different chemicals, jasplakinolide,
staurosporine and ethanol. These are known to trigger apoptosis in normal cells.
The idea was to see if cancer cells could survive once they have passed the point of no return for normal cell death. Interestingly, the cancer cells recovered once the
chemical cocktail had been removed, even after the cells had passed
normal critical checkpoints. The cancer cells regained their shape, function and continued to divide.
The cancer cells only lost the ability to recover once the nucleus at the very
heart of the cell containing key genetic material had started to
disintegrate, an event right at the end of the normal cell suicide
process. The study suggested that
cancer cells could use this ability to survive assault by chemotherapy
In the future, new chemotherapy drugs being developed may potentially be designed to attack the nucleus and have a more potent effect on apoptosis and thus the cancer mass. Time will tell but the importance of basic research and science underpinning new applied research and developments cannot be underestimated.