What makes cancer cells different from normal cells in our body? Can these differences be used to attack them and paralyze their activity? This basic question has intrigued cancer researchers since the mid-19th century.
Now a new study led by researchers at Tel Aviv University (Israel) shows, for the first time, how an abnormal number of chromosomes (aneuploidy), a unique characteristic of cancer cells that researchers have known for decades, could become a weak point for these cells.
The study could serve, in the future, for the development of drugs that take advantage of this vulnerability to kill cancer cells. The study has been published in “Nature”.
Aneuploidy is a hallmark of cancer. Although normal human cells contain two sets of 23 chromosomes each, one from the father and one from the mother, aneuploid cells have a different number of chromosomes. When aneuploidy appears in cancer cells, the cells not only ‘tolerate’ it, but even use it to promote the tumor.
The link between aneuploidy and cancer was discovered more than a century ago, long before cancer was known to be a genetic disease (and even before the discovery of DNA as hereditary material).
According to researcher Ben-David, aneuploidy is actually the most common genetic change in cancer. About 90% of solid tumors, such as breast and colon cancer, and 75% of blood cancers, are aneuploid.
However, understanding of how aneuploidy contributes to the development and spread of cancer is limited.
The study has important implications for the drug development process in the personalized cancer medicine. Drugs that delay the separation of chromosomes are in clinical trials, but it is not known which patients will respond and which will not.
Now, the results of this study suggest that it will be possible to use aneuploidy as a biological marker to identify the patients who will respond best to these drugs.
That is, it will be possible to adapt drugs that are already in clinical trials to use them against tumors with specific genetic characteristics.
However, the researchers caution that the study was conducted on cultured cells and not actual tumors. However, if replicated in patients, Ben-David says, “the findings would have important medical implications.”