By Alia Wilson

Researchers from Harvard University identified a potential way to stymie the growth of cancer cells, Jan. 5.

Most cancer cell growth is a result of cells no longer responding to outside signals to grow, divide or die. Because they no longer respond, the cells continue to divide, potentially leading to the development of tumors.

A small molecule, labeled 4EGI-1, may be able to reduce the growth of cancer cells by inhibiting the translation of weak messenger RNAs that are involved in the development of cancer cells, eventually causing them to die.

Gerhard Wagner, a lead researcher and professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press (CHP) that though research is in its early stages, the discovery is promising.

“It means a possible alternate route to fight cancer,” Wagner said. “However, there will be a long road to go, and there are many chances that this may not work in the end.”

According to Wagner, 4EGI-1 has been tested on Jurkat leukemia cells and lung cancer cells and is very effective in impeding further development.

For the molecule to be most efficient, however, the molecule would need to be increased in potency. Once increased, the molecule would be able to bind to its target elF4E more tightly, destroying the cancer cells specifically, instead of affecting both cancer cells and normal cells.

“One could then lower the doses and would reduce toxicity, which means less side effects on other targets,” Wagner explained.

If successful with this molecule, further development will continue, moving from phase one of clinical trials testing on a cellular level to phase two, testing on animals.

Scott Lokey, a chemistry professor at UCSC, said that Wagner’s work is very solid and, if testing goes well, this new discovery can go very far. It just may be a while before any results are completely uncovered.

“The technology for this kind of discovery is advanced enough that it may lead to a real treatment,” Lokey said. “It may just be 10 or 15 years away.”

According to Lokey, if testing does reach to clinical trials, there is a chance that it could be much less toxic to humans than chemotherapy.

Doug Kellogg, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz, said that problem with this approach is that it ideally only targets cancer cells, but because they are our own cells it is going to be very difficult not to harm normal cells in the process.

“Scientists are hoping that the cancer cells are more dependent on weak messenger RNA than normal cells,” Kellogg said. “They are working in very controlled conditions which are having results. But the big question is, will they see an effect on a whole animal or human?”

Because testing is in such a preliminary stage, Kellogg explained that it wouldn’t be surprising if this treatment turned out to be just as toxic as chemotherapy with similar side effects.

Treatment for cancer varies on a large scale due to the vast array of cancer strains. Kellogg said that the key to targeting cancer cells is to perform a simple test that will genotype the type of tumor, so that doctors can implement the appropriate kind of treatment.

“There’s not going to be a single magic bullet to kill all cancers,” Kellog said. “It is going to take many different drugs to have an effective form or treatment.”