Autophagy Revives Dying Cancer Cells

Self digestion thwarts self destruction.  

Apr 7, 2014
Kerry Grens

WIKIMEDIA, NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTHCancer cells in the throes of death, being ripped apart from the inside by apoptosis, can evidently survive and piece themselves back together. A study published last month (March 27) in Cell Reports and presented this week at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in San Diego, California, demonstrates how cancer cells with heightened autophagy can recover from such destruction. The results offer insight on how cancer cells might be able to withstand chemotherapy.

“The implication here is that if you inhibit autophagy you'd make this less likely to happen, i.e. when you kill cancer cells they would stay dead,” Andrew Thorburn, the senior author of the study and the deputy director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center, said in a press release.

Thorburn’s group looked at HeLa cells treated with a drug called TRAIL, which induces apoptosis. They found that augmenting autophagy in these cells leads to inefficiencies in an apoptotic process called mitochondrial outer membrane permeabilization (MOMP). Usually, cells break up within five minutes of MOMP. But when autophagy was increased, MOMP slugged along, leading to slower cell death and an opportunity for cellular revival.

“Autophagy is complex and as yet not fully understood,” Thorburn said in the release. “But now that we see a molecular mechanism whereby cell-fate can be determined by autophagy, we hope to discover patient populations that could benefit from drugs that inhibit this action.”

Check out this video of a cell ressurected from apoptosis.