Starving “cannibalistic” cancer cells to death may increase effectiveness of therapy

July 7, 2014

When faced with treatments designed to kill them, some cancer cells eat themselves to survive. But South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) researchers have found a way to starve the cells, making them more susceptible to therapy.

As researchers develop more personalized cancer therapies that target cancer cells, they are also seeing an increase in resistance to treatment, where patients relapse or no longer respond to treatment. One way that cancer resists treatment is by undergoing a process where the cancer cells eat themselves to maintain energy levels during times of stress—a process that helps them survive cancer treatments that would otherwise starve them.

Lisa Schafranek, a University of Adelaide doctoral student working at SAHMRI, and her colleagues have used a clinically available drug to stop leukemia cells from eating themselves to survive cancer therapy.

“We’ve managed to block the self-eating process at a stage where the cell would normally break down its food into energy,” says Schafranek. “The cell still eats itself, but it can’t transform that food into anything useful. So in the end, the cell essentially starves by eating itself to death. By preventing the cancer cells from self-eating, we’re cutting off their escape route and forcing them to face the cancer therapy.” The research team’s treatment uses a drug originally developed as an antibiotic to treat lung infections.

“Researchers first noticed in 2012 that leukemia patients being treated with the antibiotic responded much better to the cancer therapy than they had before,” says Schafranek. “So we’ve taken that observation and gone further to understand more about how it actually works on a cellular level.” As a result of these findings, a small-scale human trial of combined antibiotic–cancer therapy has recently begun in Italy. View a brief video presentation featuring Schafranek.

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