Scientists Work to Disarm Cancer Cells’ Stress Responses

By eliminating a certain factor, scientists may be able to slow the spread of cancer.

Cancer Cell image via Shutterstock.

Cancer Cell image via Shutterstock.

Like almost everything in life, cancer cells, too, appear to have a stress response that they use as a survival mechanism. The good news is that MIT researchers may have discovered how to interrupt this survival response.

The study, which was published Thursday in Science, explains that heat shock factor one (HSF1) is a stress response used by almost every type of cell, from human cells, to yeast cells, to worm cells. HSF1 helps normal cells adapt to harsh environments with low oxygen levels, high salt concentrations, and increased temperatures, among other conditions.

In a report, Susan Lindquist, a member of MIT’s Whitehead Institute, said:

“In a perverted twist of fate, cancer cells take advantage of this incredibly ancient survival strategy— the heat shock response— to help them survive despite the best efforts of our own natural defenses, and sophisticated therapeutics, to kill them. And trumping all that, we find it not only helps them survive, it helps them thrive.”

Basically, HSF1 is one of the reasons why cancer cells are so hard to get rid of. They need the heat shock response to help them survive harsh environments and stay active in the body. Because of this, many cancer researchers envision that a cure for cancer may come by figuring out how to eliminate the cancer cells’ access to HSF1, which proves difficult as other cells in the body need to use it, too.

However, by determining that protein translation is a process that is tied to HSF1 activity, Whitehead researchers may have identified an approach to controlling the heat response of the cancer cells. By using a compound called Rohinitib (RHT), researchers may be able to disrupt cancer cells’ HSF1 activity. The best part of this is that normal cells are resistant to RHT and seem to not mind the compound. Cancer cells, on the other hand, are very sensitive to RHT. It often kills them.

Sandro Santagata, a postdoctoral researcher in the Lindquist lab of the Whitehead Institute, said in a report:

“I think we’ve found a very simple but elegant biological principle here, which makes sense. Systems in the cell that need to work together—such as protein translation and the heat shock response—actually are linked together. We found that link using small molecules, which means that we now have the tools in hand to suppress what cancer has coopted. We can use those chemicals to thwart the cancer cells’ ability to harness the properties of HSF1.”

RHT alone will not be enough to thwart cancer, but combined with other therapies, scientists are hopeful that the compound will work to at least slow or maim cancer cells.