Cell regulator recruited to fight cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

One of the body's key mechanisms for regulating the lives and deaths of individual cells could be exploited to develop new cancer treatments, US researchers have found.

The mechanism revolves around an enzyme known as sphingosine phosphate lyase (SPL), which regulates the levels of a molecule called S1P inside cells.

S1P encourages cell growth and acts as a break on cell suicide - a cell's natural anti-cancer mechansim.

SPL appears to act as a damage sensor, breaking down any S1P in the cell and so turning off growth and encouraging the cell to die .

The researchers discovered that when cancer cells growing in the laboratory were hit by chemotherapy treatments, activating SPL caused them to begin dying in large numbers.

They also found that the enzyme was switched off in bowel cancer samples, but highly active in normal tissue. This suggests that finding ways to turn on SPL in cancers could form the basis of new cancer treatments.

"The enzyme SPL senses when a cell has sustained damage or is undergoing mutations," said lead researcher Dr Julie Saba of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute.

"Once the enzyme is aware of these changes it responds by killing the cell. We hope to find new ways to leverage the body's own natural responses to these mutated or damaged cells to target cancer cells."

The preliminary study was conducted using animal models and human bowel cancer cells, but the researchers said that they believe that targeting SPL could be an effective strategy to treat a range of other cancers.

The study is published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the abstract on PubMed