|Fernando Lopez-Diaz & Beverly Emerson from Salk Institute|
The discovery, which was a surprise to the investigators, raises the almost unthinkably positive prospect that, with novel treatment, some cancers might be prevented before they even develop. If all this sounds counterintuitive, well, Salk researchers are evidently and thankfully adept at thinking way out of the box.
“Our work suggests it might be possible to halt cancer development in premalignant cells - those that are just a few divisions away from being normal,” says the study’s lead author, Fernando Lopez-Diaz, a researcher in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at Salk.
Beverly M. Emerson, a Salk professor, head of the lab and the study’s senior author, says this study offers "both significant insights into early cancer development and a new direction to explore in cancer treatment. It would be fantastic if a single agent could shut down both advanced cancer and cancer that is primed to develop.”
That is, of course, an understatement. While this is a new discovery and far from being something to discuss with your oncologist, this finding could represent a monumental breakthrough in cancer treatment. Oncologists might even use this discovery to predict whether premalignant cells in a patient are destined to become malignant cancer.
“Not all premalignant cells morph into cancer,” Emerson notes. “Many self-destruct due to cellular protective mechanisms. But some will become tumors and, at this point, there is no way to predict which of these cells are a risk.”
Lopez-Diaz emphasizes that there's much work yet to do. “We want to understand the signals that turn TGF-β into a bad guy,” he says. “If we know that, we might be able to inhibit those signals, and force damaged cells to die, as they should. That may offer us another treatment possibility, along with TGF-β inhibitors now being tested.”