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Chemical switch determines if healthy cells are killed by chemotherapy

St. Louis, Oct. 3, 2002 -- Investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have discovered a mechanism that helps explain why healthy cells are not killed by DNA-damaging cancer chemotherapy drugs. The findings are published in the Oct. 4 issue of the journal Cell.

DNA-damaging agents are the most common kind of drugs used to treat cancer. Like most chemotherapy drugs, these are carried in the blood and travel throughout the body. They work by irreparably gumming up DNA in rapidly dividing tumor cells. That damage then triggers the cells to self-destruct through a natural process known as apoptosis, or active cell death.

The drugs also can harm rapidly dividing healthy cells, such as those in the hair follicles, but most healthy cells are unaffected. It is not known why these drugs do not trigger apoptosis in healthy cells.

"The standard answer is that tumor cells are dividing and normal cells are not," says Steve J. Weintraub, M.D., assistant professor of surgery, division of urologic surgery, of medicine and of cell biology and physiology. "But that's an observation, not an explanation."

The study led by Weintraub found that healthy, nondividing cells have a biochemical switch that when triggered allows apoptosis. The switch is found in a protein that blocks apoptosis known as Bcl-xL.

"Our findings show that if Bcl-xL is inactivated through a chemical process known as deamidation, DNA-damaging chemotherapy will kill even healthy cells," says Weintraub, who is a researcher with the Cellular Proliferation research program at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

The study focuses on a family of proteins known as Bcl-2, which play a central role in both promoting and inhibiting apoptosis. The investigators first exposed cancer cells from bone, ovarian and other tumors to the anti-cancer drug cisplatin. When they looked at the B
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Contact: Darrell E. Ward
wardd@msnotes.wustl.edu
314-286-0122
Washington University School of Medicine
3-Oct-2002


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