Cancer is one of our most persistent enemies, but while we now have advanced immune systems to fight the good fight, how did early multicellular life manage to stave it off? A genetic “kill switch” seems to have been the original weapon of choice, and now researchers at Northwestern University believe they’ve discovered a way to trigger that mechanism. This knowledge could potentially pave the way to a therapy where cancer cells commit suicide, which would be impossible for cancer cells to adapt a resistance to.
Cancer begins to form when regular cells break ranks, growing and multiplying faster than they’re supposed to. Eventually the extra cells form a tumor, and soon the cancer attracts the attention of the immune system, which goes in to wipe out the dangerous cells – that’s how it should play out, anyway. The immune system doesn’t always respond in time, and cancer has some crafty tricks up its sleeve to avoid detection in the first place.
But the immune system is extremely complex, and arose relatively late in the game. So if cancer had the upper hand for millions of years, how did life survive long enough to develop an immune system at all?
“Ever since life became multicellular, which could be more than 2 billion years ago, it had to deal with preventing or fighting cancer,” says Marcus Peter, lead author of the study. “So nature must have developed a fail safe mechanism to prevent cancer or fight it the moment it forms. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be here.”