‘Good’ nerve cells, ‘bad’ cancer cells survive in similar way


Washington : Cancer cells and nerve cells or neurons could not have been more dissimilar, yet they use strikingly similar ways to survive, according to new research.

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The study, conducted by Chapel Hill School of Medicine, University of North Carolina (UNC), describes how neurons and cancer cells achieve the common goal of inhibiting the series of biochemical events called apoptosis that eventually causes cells to break down and die.

That’s good in the case of neurons, but bad when it comes to cancer.

“In neurons, inhibiting cell death is physiologically important to ensuring their long term survival,” said the study’s co-author, neurobiologist Mohanish Deshmukh, associate professor of cell and developmental biology at UCN.

“In cancer cells, blocking cell death allows them to evade the host defence systems and proliferate uncontrollably.”

Both neurons and cancer cells do have something in common: relying extensively on the metabolism of glucose, a simple sugar. But until now, the advantages of this common characteristic have remained unclear.

“One reason why these results are so interesting is that neurons and cancer cells are as different from each other as you can imagine. For example, cancer cells divide continuously, whereas neurons don’t divide at all,” Deshmukh said.

Deshmukh and UNC graduate student Allyson Vaughn (currently postdoctoral scientist at MIT) found that to prevent death, neurons and cancer cells use a specific metabolic pathway, or series of chemical reactions, said an UNC release.

This pathway – the pentose phosphate biochemical pathway – inhibits the activation of a key protein involved in the process of cell death called cytochrome c.

“What we show is that both neurons and cancer cells inhibit the cell death process mediated by cytochrome c,” Deshmukh said.

Specifically, according to the study, cytochrome c’s ability to induce death can be turned off if the cellular environment contains high levels of antioxidants.

The study was published in the December issue of Nature Cell Biology.