Every single cell in the human body could contain a cancer “kill code” set to destroy cells which become cancerous, a new study reported in Nature Communications. The study, conducted by Northwestern University in the US, found that cancer cannot become resistant to this code, making turning it on in a cancerous cell a potentially incredibly effective treatment.

According to the study, the “kill code” is embedded in large protein-coding ribonucleic acids (RNAs) and in microRNAs which evolved more than 800 million years ago. While chemotherapy has a number of dangerous and unwelcome side effects, triggering the mechanism to activate the kill code would only require introducing the small RNAs directly into cells and triggering the “kill switch”.

The study’s lead author Marcus Peter, the Tomas D. Spies Professor of Cancer Metabolism at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, found that cancer cells die when certain small RNA molecules are introduced, though he could not determine which mechanism caused the cells to die. He did discover, however, that a sequence of just six nucleotides, or 6mers, found in small RNAs made them toxic to cancer cells.

Peter tested more than 4,000 combinations of nucleotide bases in the 6mers until he found the most toxic combination, learning that microRNAs expressed in the body to fight cancer use this 6mer to kill cancer cells.

The cancer cells treated with the RNA molecules never become resistant to the code, as the RNA molecules simultaneously eliminate a number of genes cancer cells need for survival. Peter said of the new process that it was: “…like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time. You cannot survive.”

Peter said that the new process “absolutely” now needs to be turned into a therapy. He is currently looking into the different ways the kill code can be triggered, though noted that any potential therapy is many years off yet.

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