“Trojan Horse”-like therapy: a sneaky treatment to trick cancer cells into self-sabotage


A laboratory run by Dr Patricia Muller at Durham University is studying how to use a particular feature of certain types of cancer cells against them. The cells at the centre of this research contain a mutation in the p53 tumour suppressor protein which controls the expression of genes. When this protein mutates, cell division can become unregulated as apoptosis (cell programmed death) and cell cycle checkpoints (control mechanisms to regulate cell size and DNA quality) do not take place, leading to cancers.

Cells with a mutated p53 protein are less responsive to chemotherapy and are more inclined to ‘metastasis’, which is where cancer cells break off a cancerous growth and become attached somewhere else, creating a secondary growth. Mutations of the p53 protein can be particularly dangerous as they are usually ‘gain-of-function’ mutations. This means the protein gains new characteristics, for example the ability to invade other cells. This is why Dr Muller’s laboratory research is essential for developing a method to treat cancer cells with this mutation.

Cancer cells with the p53 mutation can spread without creating an immune response

The group have been studying the ability of cells with a mutated p53 protein to engulf other cells, including both other tumour cells and healthy cells. They can also consume cells in the immune system, so cancer cells with the p53 mutation can spread without creating an immune response. These mutations are highly prevalent in lung cancers, but are also found in other types of tumours like pancreatic and oral cancers. This ability to engulf other cells means the cancer can grow rapidly and spread undetected, reaching stage 4 cancer which then becomes increasingly difficult to treat as it requires targeting multiple areas in the body.

The researchers can then use this characteristic of the mutated cells against them. Dr Muller describes it as “a bit like a Trojan Horse” as they are employing a method where they synthesise a replicate large cell and fill it with a chemical that will cause cell death. The mutated cells will not be able to detect this from the outside of the replicate cell and will consume it as they would any other cell in the human body. However, there is still research to be done as to make this treatment as effective as possible it needs to be that only the p53 mutated cells consume the Trojan Horse-like replica cells, not the body’s immune system. Dr Patricia Muller (Biosciences Department) and Dr Margarita Staykova (Physics Department) are working towards making it so that our own immune systems go unaffected by this new treatment.

Image: Librepath via Wikimedia Commons

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