New finding offers potential breakthrough in cancer fight

Scientists in the US have found a kill switch that causes cancerous cells to die

In Summary

• Cancer is generally managed with surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy 

• No drugs have made it into clinical trials. These findings could potentially change that.

A research team say they have identified a “kill switch” that can cause cells to die.

They said they found a receptor within a cell that receives and transmits signals that can "programme" cancerous cells to die.

Their findings are detailed in a study published in the journal Cell Death & Differentiation last month.

“This new ability to trigger programmed cell death could open the door for improved cancer treatments,” said the research team from US’s University of California at Davis.

Jogender Tushir-Singh, an associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and senior author of the study, hailed the findings as a breakthrough.

“Previous efforts to target this receptor have been unsuccessful,” he said.

“But now that we’ve identified this epitope, there could be a therapeutic path forward to targeting Fas (Fatty acid synthase) in tumours.”

Cancer is generally managed with surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

These treatments may work initially, but in some cases, therapy-resistant cancers often return.

Jogenger said they identified a protein on the CD95 receptor that can "programme" cancer cells to die.

CD95 receptors are also nicknamed "death receptors" because they send a signal that causes cancer cells to "self-destruct”.

Experts are hopeful that future cancer drugs could boost the activity of these CD95 receptors to create a new weapon against cancer tumours.

However, though drug companies have had some success targeting the Death Receptor-5, no Fas agonists have made it into clinical trials.

These findings could potentially change that.

An agonist is a drug that activates a receptor to produce a biological response.

However, experts always caution about many reported potential breakthroughs.

They caution many basic studies on cancer – a high proportion of them from university labs – cannot be replicated, and do not help in producing new medicines in the future.

In Kenya, the main methods of treating cancers remain chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

In August, health experts asked that the latest method of treating cancer be rolled out in other parts of the country.

Known as brachytherapy treatment, the procedure is effective in the treatment of prostate cancer diagnosed at early stages.

The treatment involves implanting permanent radioactive seeds into the prostate gland under ultrasound guidance.

The seeds may give off high or low amounts of radiation.

According to medics, brachytherapy is an alternative to surgery, which is more precise and has less morbidity.

This means that a patient who undergoes the surgery can resume their normal routine activities a few hours after the procedure is done.

It is a form of radiotherapy in which you implant the radiotherapy inside the disease rather than treating it with external beams.

The prostate remains intact and there is no major surgery that is going to take place.

Even though the treatment option was introduced at the Nairobi Hospital in 2017, its utilisation remains low, with just 112 of such procedures having been conducted to date.

Currently, the Nairobi Hospital is the only facility in the country with the capacity to conduct the procedure.

The health experts want it to be rolled out in more parts of the country so that more men can access the treatment.

Brachytherapy is also used in the treatment of cervical cancer, with Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret having for the first time used the procedure in May 2021.

"It is a simpler method that can be rolled out in other parts of this country," consultant urologist at TNH Peter Mungai said on Wednesday.

"Yesterday, we did two patients and it is possible to do three or five patients in a day, while in radical surgery, you will do one patient the whole day.

"Not only can we use it for treating patients who have the disease for the first time but can also treat patients who have previously been treated with other methods and the disease is coming back."

Mungai said prostate cancer is a major concern in Kenya as it is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women, and is the main leading cause of death among men.

The disease is detected through Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) tests.

PSA is a protein produced by both cancerous and noncancerous tissue in the prostate.

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