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Scope 64 - Ankle-tapping cancer: reducing therapy resistance in brain cancers

31 October 2017

Cancer is particularly good at shrugging off whatever is thrown at it, ploughing on even as the severity of treatment is increased. How can we ‘trip up’ cancer so that treatment remains effective, and the cancer does not ‘get back up’ again?

Therapy resistance has been a focus of research for both Professor Mike Berridge of the Malaghan Institute and research associate Dr Melanie McConnell at Victoria University of Wellington. Both teams have been working together to nd out what makes cancer so resistant to treatment, and what we can do to counter its survivability – tackling this issue from two very different yet related approaches.

Prof Berridge and his team have been investigating the mechanisms that make cancer so resilient – and have discovered an entirely new biological principle from it. Published in 2015, the

team found that cancers and tumours, once damaged, have the capacity to hijack mitochondria from neighbouring healthy cells which help them remain functional. Mitochondria are essential to cell life, providing the much-needed energy a cell requires to function. Without mitochondria, cells quickly die.

That cancer cells enlist healthy mitochondria from their surroundings when damaged gives insight into how cancer cells respond to the treatments designed to kill them. Finding ways to block this effect is a promising area of research for Prof Berridge and his team.

Meanwhile, Dr McConnell and her team have successfully identi ed a protein in brain cancer cells that appears to be essential for its survival. Called the BCL6 transcription factor,
it is expressed by therapy and plays a vital role keeping brain cancer cells alive during even aggressive anti-cancer treatments. Dr McConnell’s team have shown that when BCL6 activity is blocked, cancer cells quickly succumb to treatment.