Scientists trigger self-destruct switch in lung cancer cells

The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI)

Cancer cells dying

Fluorescent cancer cells self-destructing after being treated with TRAIL. By courtesy of Professor Henning Walczak and Dr Nigel Waterhouse. Please credit.

Cancer Research UK scientists have found a drug combination that can trigger the self-destruct process in lung cancer cells - paving the way for new treatments, according to research that will be presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool next week*.

“Igniting the fuse that causes lung cancer cells to self-destruct could pave the way to a completely new treatment approach." - Professor Henning Walczak.

When healthy cells are no longer useful they initiate a chain of events culminating in self destruction. But cancer cells swerve away from this suicide path and become immortal. This means that cells grow out of control – causing tumours to form.

The Cancer Research UK team, based at the UCL Cancer Institute, has successfully fixed this fault in lung cancer cells – reprogramming the cells to self-destruct.

Using lung cancer cells and mice the scientists showed that the combination of two drugs, called TRAIL and a CDK9 inhibitor**, altered the molecular switches in the cell suicide process – forcing the cancer cells to self-destruct.

Lead researcher, Cancer Research UK scientist Professor Henning Walczak from the UCL Cancer Institute, said: “Igniting the fuse that causes lung cancer cells to self-destruct could one day pave the way to a completely new treatment approach  – and leave healthy cells unharmed.

“The next step of our work will see how this approach works in other cancer types, and we hope it could eventually ultimately lead to testing this technique in trials to see if it can help patients. Though this is likely to be some years away.”

Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “This important research builds on the progress we’ve made to understand the routes cancer cells use to stay alive. Understanding and targeting these processes will move us closer to our goal of three out of four people beating cancer within the next 20 years.

“There’s an urgent need to save more lives from lung cancer and we hope these findings will one day lead to effective new treatments to help lung cancer patients and potentially those with other cancer types too.”

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Notes to Editor

* You can find the abstract for this research online:

** This drug combination is in early stage development to potentially treat non small cell lung cancer.