An Unexpected Path to Cell Death Before Cancer Starts

Scientists at the Salk Institute made an interesting discovery (published in the journal Nature, on January 23, 2019), when studying how telomeres relate to cancer.  A cellular process called autophagy (the body's way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells), can actually promote cell death, which would prevent damaged cells from becoming cancerous.

There are many checkpoints in the body that try to prevent cells from dividing out of control (become cancerous), but this was not expected.

When studying telomeres, which get shorter every time a cell duplicates its DNA to divide and grow, they found cells go into a state called 'crisis' when the telomeres get too short or are missing.  Researchers has assumed cell death in crisis happened through apoptosis.

To study the connection with telomeres, the researchers forced healthy cells into crisis.  They disabled tumor-suppressor genes, allowing the cells to reproduce without limit, the telomeres got shorter and shorter as a result.  In the experiment, they observed cell death by both apoptosis and autophagy, and noted that autophagy was the dominant mechanism for cell death when cells were in crisis.

The researchers plan to continue studying the different paths to cell death, where damage to chomosome ends (telomeres) leads to autophagy and damage to other parts of chromosomes leads to apoptosis.

This will clearly lead to more studies as researchers will study this new pathway in finding more ways to fight cancer.