New Way to Kill Treatment-Resistant Cancer Stem Cells Discovered

A new study has revealed a CD95 receptor-induced method for destroying the cancer stem cells that lead to the disease’s spread and recurrence.
Mario L. Major
Growing cancer cells (in purple) are surrounded by healthy cells (in pink).NIH via Flickr

Cancer, despite the growing number of detection methods, among all the major illnesses ranks as one of the most difficult to fight, in large part due to the still-developing number of approaches, with some aimed at slowing them down, while others focused on killing them altogether

In the latter category, the option of apoptosis is being researched: the process involves receptors' targeted attack of undesirable cells. The work of a team of researchers, led by hematology-oncology specialists from Northwestern University, is expanding our understanding of the capabilities of the cancer-fighting method. 

An Evolving Body of Research

The scientists focused their research on Fas, or CD95, receptors, which play an important role in apopotosis. CD95L mRNAs, small RNAs derived from CD95s after they "are loaded into the RNA induced silencing complex (RISC)", induce death in cancer stem cells.  Before, they argued, the process was limited to only si/shRNAs, which are derived from CD95 and CD95L mRNA sequences.

The breakthrough is that the scientists have produced evidence pointing to the fact that CD95L mRNAs themselves can initiate cancer stem cell death. “When cancer develops resistance to traditional treatments like chemotherapy, it becomes more and more aggressive, in part because of an increased number of cancer stem cells,” explained Marcus Peter at the time one of the earlier studies on the receptors was released in 2014.  

He serves as Northwestern University Professor of Medicine (Hematology and Oncology) and Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, as well as lead author on the current study and two previous studies. “This subpopulation of cancer cells, which is most addicted to CD95 for survival, is obliterated by DICE (cell death induced by CD95 receptor or ligand elimination).”

An Approach That is Quickly Gaining Momentum

The relevance of the research to the field of oncology is significant, as understanding the factors involved in the growth rate and life cycle of cells is crucial in the fight against cancer. In fact, there is an emerging subfield within oncology dedicated to outlining the definition of cell death and what factors accelerate, or inhibit, the process.

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The recommendations of the influential Nomenclature Committee on Cell Death (NCCD)--based on a decade of research--were presented earlier this year, and in it, a comprehensive guide to all the aspects of cell death is presented.

Apoptosis, moreover, offers an alternative to chemotherapy, an aggressive method of killing off cancer cells that comes with a range of debilitating side effects. 


What cancer is proving to the medical community is that unlike many other major illnesses, there is no easy roadmap in terms of treatment. With each emerging approach, researchers come closer to hopefully being able to combine treatments in the most case-specific and effective manner.

As the debate regarding cure vs. prevention continues within the oncology community, it is vital that we also continue to develop approaches that take into account those patients who are fighting the good fight against the disease.

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "CD95/Fas ligand mRNA is toxic to cells", which was shared by eLife beginning on October 16th. 


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