Kidney Cancer Cells Tricked Into Killing Themselves

A researcher has found a potential therapy for patients with kidney cancer, which historically hasn't responded well to other therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy.

Most cancerous kidney cells — also known as renal cells – have lost a gene called VHL, says Amato Giaccia, a cancer researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine. And as he reports in the journal Cancer Cell, Giaccia has found a new compound, STF-62247, that causes death to kidney cancer cells missing VHL.

The drug works by altering a natural process inside cells. All cells have a kind of internal recycling process, called autophagy, where compounds inside the cell are broken down and their chemicals re-used. But Giaccia says there is normally a balance.

"If you have too much of this process, you drive the cells into death," he says.

That's what the new compound does, but it only works on kidney cancer cells lacking VHL.

"Autophagy has been really troublesome as whether it's a mechanism that keeps the cells alive or it's a mechanism that you can utilize to promote cell death," says Kimryn Rathmell, who studies kidney cancer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Rathmell says Giaccia's work is part of a new direction for researchers looking for cancer therapies.

"If we can find the linchpin that keeps the cancer going, and we can target that specifically, then those drugs can have really tremendous potential to either induce very long-term remission, stable disease, or even cure," Rathmell says.

But she and other researchers say it's premature to get too excited about the new Stanford research.

"One has to be very careful in translating what one finds in the laboratory in animal studies to patients," says Giovanni Melillo of the National Cancer Institute.

But there's reason to be optimistic about the new compound.

"One reason why this particular approach is exciting is because again it's based on a strong rationale that exploits a specific genetic defect of tumor cells."

So far the new drug has only been effective in mice. But the Stanford researchers have begun the process of getting it ready to test in humans.

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