Normal cells become cancerous after being brought back from the brink of suicide, Chinese University researchers have found in a groundbreaking study that may lead to new cancer treatments.
Researchers say their findings show for the first time that normal animal cells can recover from a chemically induced suicide designed to simulate natural cell death called apoptosis - even after they pass certain markers long believed to represent a point of no return.
In addition, the study suggests that the recovery of such cells - and potentially their progression to a cancerous state - can be inhibited by a soya bean extract containing an anticancer compound. The study will be detailed today in the journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell.
'Our finding gives a new route to understand the basic biology and implicates new therapies like enhancing the effect of chemotherapy by inhibiting the cells' recovery,' biology professor Fung Ming-chiu said. 'It's important patients receive chemotherapy under a doctor's guidance to make sure the cells die thoroughly.'
The research builds on a 2009 study, in which the same team showed that human cancer cells could be resuscitated after key cellular structures had passed 'critical checkpoints' of decay, including significant shrinkage and a breakdown in DNA.
The breakthrough could help explain why cancer returns after going into remission.
After their earlier success, the team set out to see if normal cells could also recover after the chemical cocktail used to simulate apoptosis was withdrawn.
They found the answer is yes. But once they recovered the once-healthy cells 'display characteristics similar to cancer cells'.
In a related study, the researchers show that a soya bean extract containing the compound genistein can inhibit a recovery from apoptosis in cancer cells and have an anti-cancer effect if used with chemotherapy. The finding may lead to new therapeutic treatment for cancers.
'It isn't clear whether eating soya beans helps us treat cancer now,' Fung said. 'It's important that the public doesn't misunderstand.'
The researchers plan to test the extract on animals before carrying out clinical tests on humans at a later date. Cancer treatment relies on aggressive chemotherapy to kill cancer cells, but the cancer can return and prove fatal.
A World Health Organisation study released in 2007 found that 90 per cent of patients who receive chemotherapy die within five years from a recurrence of cancer.