mRNA Trojan Horse tricks cancer into making toxins to kill itself

Lipid nanoparticles carry mRNA sequences to cancer cells, causing them to produce toxins that kill the tumors.  Depositphotos

Michael Irving

Inside all living cells are ribosomes, which are essentially tiny factories that produce proteins. Exactly which proteins they make depends on the ‘blueprints’ they receive, and these come from messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules.

Over the past few decades, scientists have found that they can hijack this mechanism to make beneficial proteins on demand. This mRNA technology was greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as BioNTech and Moderna developed vaccines that worked by coaxing our cells to produce spike proteins similar to the virus, triggering an immune response that trained our body to fight off subsequent infections.

Since then, scientists have turned their sights onto cancer, experimenting with using mRNA to produce proteins that mimic those made by tumors, helping to launch an immune response against the cancer. This could be particularly promising when paired with other treatments like immunotherapy.

But for the new study, scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel created an mRNA cancer treatment that works in a different way. The mRNA molecules are encoded to produce a toxin that bacteria make, and are then packaged into lipid nanoparticles and injected into the tumors. This causes the cells to start producing the toxin, and effectively poison themselves. The team says this could be a safer option than chemotherapy, which also harms healthy cells.

“With a simple injection to the tumor bed, we can cause cancer cells to ‘commit suicide,’ without damaging healthy cells,” said Professor Dan Peer, co-lead author of the study. “Moreover, cancer cells cannot develop resistance to our technology as often happens with chemotherapy – because we can always use a different natural toxin.”

In tests in mice with melanoma, between 44 and 60% of the cancer cells were destroyed after a single injection. The tumor growth slowed and the mice showed significantly improved survival rates over control mice. No adverse effects were seen in the animals.

As intriguing as the idea sounds, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s very early days for the research. There’s no guarantee that results will carry across to humans, and more large-scale animal testing will need to be done first.

The research was published in the journal Theranostics.

Source: Tel Aviv University


Leave a Reply