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Chemotherapy has been used for almost a century to kill cancer cells, but researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute have discovered a new way in which cancer cells die due to the Schlafen11 gene. This finding could have implications for the treatment of cancer patients. The protein p53 is known to initiate cell suicide when cell DNA is damaged, but in over half of tumors, p53 no longer functions. This led the researchers to investigate why cancer cells without p53 still die when exposed to chemotherapy or radiation.

By selectively disabling genes in cells and administering chemotherapy, the researchers discovered a new pathway to cell death led by the gene Schlafen11 (SLFN11). In the event of DNA damage, SLFN11 shuts down the cell’s protein factories, called ribosomes, causing immense stress that leads to cell death. This new route to cell death entirely bypasses p53, providing insight into how cancer cells without functional p53 can still die in response to DNA damage. The researchers found that the SLFN11 gene is often inactive in tumors of patients who do not respond to chemotherapy, linking its inactivity to cancer survival.

The discovery of this new pathway to cell death raises many new research questions and could have implications for cancer treatments. Questions remain about where and when this pathway occurs in patients, how it affects immunotherapy and chemotherapy, and whether it impacts the side effects of cancer therapy. Further investigation into these questions will be necessary to fully understand the potential implications of this finding for cancer treatments. The study was conducted on lab-grown cancer cells, and further research is needed to determine the significance of this pathway in actual patients.

Researcher Thijn Brummelkamp developed a method using haploid cells, which contain only one copy of each gene, to determine the roles of different genes in cell processes. This method has been used to unravel various crucial processes in disease, such as how cells produce lipids, how viruses enter human cells, and how cancer cells become resistant to therapies. Brummelkamp’s team has also identified proteins that regulate the immune system, which is relevant to cancer immunotherapy. This research was supported financially by organizations like the KWF Dutch Cancer Society, Oncode Institute, and Health Holland.

Overall, this groundbreaking research has uncovered a new pathway to cell death involving the SLFN11 gene, which could have significant implications for the treatment of cancer patients. Further investigation is needed to understand the full impact of this discovery on cancer therapy, including its effects on immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and side effects. The use of haploid cells to selectively disable genes has allowed researchers to make important discoveries in various disease processes, highlighting the importance of fundamental research in advancing our understanding of health and disease.

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