“Like a good chess player, we must think several moves ahead instead of just reacting to the present situation”, says Dr. Gaetano Gargiulo, head of the Molecular Oncology at the Max Delbrück Center. By anticipating how cancerous cells will react to certain stimuli, his research group is leading the mutated cells down a particular path where they’ve set up a trap.
Chemotherapy is the standard treatment for non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC), but it comes with several side effects. It negatively impacts the whole body, affecting both healthy and diseased cells alike, and produces adverse symptoms (fatigue, nausea, hair loss etc.). Even more, in cases of very aggressive tumors, some cells will survive, get altered and eventually become untreatable.
The German team is exploring a somewhat unconventional approach. Making the cells aggressive causes them to produce an enzyme called Ezh2, preventing a number of tumor suppressor genes, which anticipate stop cells from multiplying out of control. Using drugs that inhibit this enzyme reactivates the genes and renders the cancer vulnerable.
“Although the cells may be extremely aggressive once they are resistant to the Ezh2 inhibitor, they are dependent on the inflammatory situation”, explains Dr. Gaetano.
Several different options are being tested and results so far are very promising. “In our mice, this agent initially worked as expected and inhibited the multiplication of tumor cells, thus keeping the cancer in check”.
The project is still in the early stages and a lot more work needs to be done before going into human trials. “If we intentionally make cancer cells more aggressive, we have to know exactly what we’re doing. We first have to gather sufficient data and experience in the lab before we can even think about testing this treatment strategy on patients”, emphasizes Gargiulo.
As strange as it might sound, future treatments could actually involve making the disease worse before making it better.