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Forcing cancer to self-cannibalize

Preclinical study shows promise


By Scott Merville

 Yunfei Wen, Ph.D., instructor in Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at
MD Anderson

Under stress from chemotherapy or radiation, some cancer cells avoid death by consuming a bit of themselves, allowing them to essentially sleep through treatment and later awaken as a tougher, more resistant disease. Autophagy – self-eating – is a natural cellular defense against a lack of nutrients and other stressors. For cancer cells, it’s a way to survive treatment. Autophagy puts the cell in an inactive quiet state called quiescence, which allows it to recover.

Interfering with the cancer-promoting protein prolactin and its receptor can turn this resistance mechanism into lethal, runaway form of self-cannibalization, say MD Anderson researchers in the journal Cell Reports.

“Our findings provide a clinical rationale for blocking prolactin and its receptor and for using prolonged autophagy as an alternative strategy for treating cancers,” says Yunfei Wen, Ph.D., first author of this study and an instructor in Gynecologic Oncology.

Research support came from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, the Chapman Foundation, the Meyer and Ida Gordon Foundation and the Blanton-Davis Ovarian Cancer Research Program.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center