Israeli researchers say they have found a way to curb growth of cancer cells

Scientists at Ben-Gurion University develop a molecule that inhibits development of a protein that is active in many tumors

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative: Cancer cells. (Pixabay)
Illustrative: Cancer cells. (Pixabay)

A group of researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has developed a new molecule that they say inhibits the growth of cancer cells and also reprograms them to be noncancerous.

The new treatment is based on inhibiting the production of a protein, the voltage-dependent anion-selective channel 1 (VDAC1), highly increased levels of which are found in many solid and non-solid tumors.

The research was led by Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz of the Department of Life Sciences and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev Ltd. (NIBN), both of which are part of BGU.

The VDAC1 protein regulates the mitochondria, which control cell metabolism. Cancer cells are known to have a very active metabolism.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz (Courtesy)

“Cancer cells have hundred times more VDAC1 than normal cells,” said Shoshan-Barmatz in a phone interview. “So we said, let’s prevent, down-regulate its formation.”

The researchers thus developed a molecule called the siRNA, which when applied to the cells was found to stop the growth of cancer cells and when applied to mice with tumors, it caused the shrinking of the tumor. Not only that, explained Shoshan-Barmatz, the cells were found to go back “to their original normal-like state.”

The study was conducted on both in vitro and in mouse models of brain cancer, lung cancer and breast cancer.

Normal cells, which are not as needy of the VDAC1 protein, did not react negatively to the drop in the protein level, she said. The “treatment with siRNA against VDAC1 inhibited growth of cancer cells but not of noncancerous cells, pointing to a potentially safe treatment.”

And most significantly, she added, the siRNA treatment of various cancer types in mouse models “resulted in reprogrammed cancer cells metabolism, leading to reduced tumor growth, induced disappearance of cancer stem cells and prompted cell differentiation. Thus, we discovered a code for reprogramming cancer cells so that they lose their oncogenic features.”

“Although still in early stages, we are excited with our results that demonstrate the potential of this novel molecule for cancer treatment,” said Shoshan-Barmatz.

BGN Technologies, the technology transfer company of Ben-Gurion University, is now in the process of patenting the molecule and the study will be published shortly after that, Shoshan-Barmatz said.

Dr. Ora Horovitz, senior vice president of business development at BGN Technologies, said that the researchers are “now seeking partners for the further development and advancement of this promising patented treatment,” bringing it to clinical trials in the hope that it will lead to a new path for cancer treatment.

The NIBN is an independent research institute that aims to facilitate and speed up preclinical trials of basic and applied biotechnological research.

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