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Scientists discover a new way to kill cancer

Published: 
21 August 2009

A new way of making cancer cells die has been found by researchers: a breakthrough that could eventually lead to new treatments for a range of different cancers.

A collaborative team of scientists at the Universities of Southampton and Manchester investigated how antibody treatments make cancer cells kill themselves and found a previously undiscovered mechanism that could, in future, be even more effective in causing their death.

It is well known that when antibodies bind to cells, including cancer cells, they can ‘flag’ those targets for destruction by the body’s immune system. By contrast, the study shows that antibodies can kill cancer cells directly. When the antibody binds, it causes lysosomes (small acid containing sacs) inside the cell to swell and burst, rapidly releasing their toxic contents with fatal results for the cancer cell.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, offers hope of more alternative approaches to killing cancer cells that may have become resistant to the traditional chemotherapy treatments.

A number of antibody treatments for cancer have been developed over the last decade and some of them are a huge step forward in treatment. The current research identifies how some of these kill cancer cells and provides exciting insights into how other antibodies that use this mechanism might be developed.

Dr Mark Cragg, a cell biologist at the University of Southampton’s School of Medicine, led the research together with Prof. Tim Illidge, from the University of Manchester. He said: “Our findings are significant and open up the possibility of applying the knowledge of how antibodies can be developed to trigger cell death and may enable us to design treatments for other cancers.”

Dr Cragg is a cell biologist at the University of Southampton’s School of Medicine
Dr Mark Cragg

The large study was funded by the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR), Leukaemia Research, Cancer Research UK and Tenovus.

Dr Mark Matfield, of AICR, commented: “The discovery of a new mechanism by which cancer cells kill themselves is an important step forward in cancer research. Killing the cancer cells is the basis of all successful cancer treatments.”

Dr David Grant, of Leukaemia Research said, "The discovery of the unique pathway used by antibody therapies to kill cancer cells has for the first time revealed why they are more effective than chemotherapy. This may lead to new treatments for patients with blood cancers who cannot be cured using conventional chemotherapy.”

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