In a first! Scientists use artificial DNA to kill cancer cells: Here’s what you need to know


Researchers have found a new way to kill cancer cells by using artificial DNA which could pave the way for a cure for the disease in the future. The existing methods of treating cancer have their limitations, however, scientists believe that RNA and DNA-based drugs could potentially help beat the deadly disease. 

The findings published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, last week, show that the researchers at the University of Tokyo have used the chemically synthesised, hairpin-shaped, cancer-killing DNA to target and kill human cervical cancer and breast cancer-derived cells. The DNA pairs were also used against malignant melanoma cells in mice. 

The team of researchers at the University of Tokyo, led by Assistant Professor Kunihiko Morihiro and Professor Akimitsu Okamoto from the Graduate School of Engineering, indicated that they were inspired to move away from conventional anti-cancer drug treatments by using artificial DNA. 

Notably, nucleic acids (namely DNA and RNA) drugs are not typically used for cancer treatments and have been challenging in the past given that it is difficult for them to distinguish between cancer cells and other healthy cells. 

Therefore, there has been a risk of adversely affecting the patient’s immune system if the healthy cells are accidentally attacked. “We thought that if we can create new drugs that work by a different mechanism of action from that of conventional drugs, they may be effective against cancers that have been untreatable up to now,” said Okamoto. 

This led the team of researchers, for the first time, to develop the hairpin-shaped DNA strand which can activate a natural immune response to target and kill specific cancerous cells. 

Cancer cells can overexpress, which means creating too many copies of a protein like RNA, DNA or other substance, causing them not to function normally and potentially contributing to cancer development. Therefore, to mitigate this growth as well as prevent it, the team from Tokyo created something called artificial oncolytic which are the aforementioned DNA pairs called oHPs.

The hairpin-shaped DNA was injected into the cancer cell, subsequently, oHPs were triggered to form longer DNA strands when they encountered microRNA called miR-21, which is overproduced in certain cancers, these molecules then began to unravel and joined together creating an immune response. Furthermore, these long chains of DNA not only killed the cancer cells, but they were also able to prevent further growth of the cancerous tissue. 

Typically, oHPs don’t form longer strands due to their curved hairpin shape, but in this case, the artificial oHPs were able to overcome this limitation and opened up to combine with target microRNA and form a longer strand. According to the study, this causes the immune system to recognise the presence of the overexpressed miR-21 as dangerous and trigger its innate immune response which results in the death of the cancer cells. 

What type of cancers was it effective against?

The study found that the test was effective against overexpressed miR-21 found in human cervical cancer-derived cells, human triple-negative breast cancer-derived cells, and mouse malignant melanoma-derived cells. 

In a statement, Okamoto said that the formation of DNA strands due to interaction between short DNA oHPs and overexpressed miR-21 are the first examples of its use as a “selective immune amplification response which can target tumour regression”.  

The researcher also noted how the interaction found by the research team provides, “a new class of nucleic acid drug candidates with a mechanism that is completely different from known nucleic acid drugs.” 

Furthermore, the research is expected to transform the future of medicine through the use of a similar method to treat illnesses caused by viruses and genetic diseases. However, they still have a long way to go before the method can actually be used as a treatment and made available for the general public, but the team is confident about the benefits of nucleic acids for new drug discovery. 

“The results of this study are good news for doctors, drug discovery researchers and cancer patients, as we believe it will give them new options for drug development and medication policies. Next, we will aim for drug discovery based on the results of this research, and examine in detail the drug efficacy, toxicity and potential administration methods,” Okamoto noted. 

 

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