New Drugs May Help Make Healthy Cells Immune to Radiation

Research indicates that suppression of a particular gene may help protect healthy cells and tissue from damage caused by cancer radiation treatments. The findings, reported by researchers at the University of Pittsburg (in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute), are considered as a major breakthrough in cancer research.

The majority of cancer patients are treated with radiation therapy. The success of such therapy is often limiting, given the fact that such treatments have the potential to harm healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Now, this new discovery has the potential to yield safer, more effective drugs.

The breakthrough was somewhat of an accidental discovery. The University of Pittsburg happened upon the finding while investigating gene treatments related to heart disease and high blood pressure. In the course of this research, they found that the suppression of a particular gene resulted in cell immunity to cancer radiation.

To test the effectiveness of their happy accident, the team purposely blocked the biochemical signaling pathway that expresses this gene in pigs and mice. To their surprise, the healthy cells exhibited immunity even to the highest doses of radiation.

Just as surprisingly, the radiation treatments appear to be more effective at killing cancer cells. As it turns out, the same gene suppression that safeguards healthy gene also reduces the defenses of cancer cells.

Currently, radiation treatment has a number of side effects due to healthy cell death. These include fatigue, hair loss, skin sores and vomiting. By minimizing the potential damage to healthy cells, cancer treatment in the future may not only be more tolerable, but more effective as well.

As Dr. Jeff Isenburg, leader of the study, reports, “this dramatic protective effect occurred in skin, muscle and bone marrow cells, which is very encouraging.”

Dr. David Roberts, from the National Cancer Institute, adds: “In our experiments, suppression of CD47 robustly delayed the regrowth of tumors in radiation-treated mice.”

The promising early findings may lead to viable human treatments is as few as five years. In the mean time, further research must be enacted to better understand how exactly the suppression of CD47 protects healthy cells. Additional testing is also required on lab animals before clinical trials will begin.