When speaking about cryptography, one likely imagines a military or computerized setting, where a group of people tries fervently to decipher the coded messages of their enemy in order to gain valuable intelligence. But the same thing is happening in labs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, only with microbiologists cracking the code of cancer cells.
The sorts of messages that cancer cells send are actually directed to cells of their host body: specifically, cells with the capability to heal other cells. Researchers have known for a while that tumors like to recruit healing cells; what they haven’t known is how the cancer cells enlist the healing cells in the first place. In this new study by U-M professor Russell Taichman and research associate Younghun Jung, the signals sent out by these cancer cells can now be decoded.
What surprised the team was that the healing cells gave the cancer cells more than they bargained for. In many cases, they not only healed the target cells but also significantly increased their productivity and spreading potential. Taichman compares this “overdrive” effect to giving sugar to a group of small children. This means that the biologists also got more than they bargained for by cracking the molecular code, as they stand now to interrupt the healing and productivity of the tumor in one fell swoop.
The next step will be to develop drugs that can scramble or stop these signals before they are sent, which would cease tumor formation and expansion at a much more early stage.