The technique, called “mito-priming”, has been hailed by researchers as a breakthrough in the fight against the disease.
Scientists the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, which is run by Cancer Research UK and closely linked to Glasgow University, developed the technique as a research tool while trying to understand how cancer cells die.
The discovery means mito-priming can be applied to identify new anti-cancer drugs to screen their effectiveness, in particular, so-called “BH3-mimetics” medications. BH3-mimetics – a new class of cancer drugs developed to specifically kill tumour cells – target a family of proteins called BCL-2 proteins, which function to keep cancer cells alive.
While not yet in use in clinical practice, BH3-mimetic anti-cancer drugs are showing promise in late-stage clinical trials, particularly in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).
Researchers at Glasgow University’s Institute of Cancer Sciences believe their pioneering mito-priming method can be applied to screen for new drugs to target BCL-2 proteins and help find new ways to kill cancer cells.
Senior lecturer Dr Stephen Tait said: “We have developed a new way to make any cell type sensitive to BH3-mimetic treatment. We term this method mito-priming.
“Mito-priming can be used to rapidly screen for new BH3-mimetics and other anti-cancer drugs, and should improve ways to kill cancer cells.
“It can also be used to rapidly define the potency and specificity of BH3-mimetics.
“Finally, the technique will allow us to understand how drug resistance occurs thereby allowing us to prevent this from happening in the first place.
“There is currently a lot of interest in targeting BCL2 proteins in the fight against cancer and there will be new therapies emerging in the future. We are hopeful our new method of mito-priming can be used as a platform to discover new drugs to target BCL-2 proteins.”
The scientists developed mito-priming by producing equal amounts of toxic and protective BCL-2 proteins in cells.
The research is published in Nature Communications.