An innovative technique to cause apoptosis – programmed cell death – that could lead to new approaches to treating cancer has been developed by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

Apoptosis, a complex process that occurs through networks of proteins that interact with each other, is an essential defense mechanism against the spread of abnormal cells such as cancer. Cancer cells usually avoid this process due to mutations in the genes that encode the relevant proteins, with the result that the cancer cells survive and take over while healthy cells die.

The research, led by HU graduate student Chen Hener-Katz and with collaboration by Prof. Assaf Friedler of the university’s institute of chemistry and Weizmann Prof. Atan Gross, was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The study examined the interaction between two important proteins involved in cell death: mitochondrial carrier homologue 2 (MTCH2), which was discovered in Gross’s lab, and truncated BID (tBID), which are both involved in the apoptotic process. The researchers found a critical step in initiating apoptosis in the regions of the two proteins that are responsible for binding to each other.

Following their discovery, the researchers developed short synthetic protein fragments, or peptides, that mimicked the areas on the proteins that bind to each other, and by doing so inhibited this binding. In lab experiments conducted on cell cultures, this caused cancer cells of human origin to die.

“These protein segments could be the basis of future anti-cancer therapies in cases where the mechanism of natural cell death is not working properly,” said Friedler. “We have just begun to uncover the hidden potential in the interaction between these proteins. This is an important potential target for the development of anticancer drugs that will stimulate apoptosis by interfering with its regulation.”

EXPLAINING CANCER TO KIDS

Cancer is difficult for a child to understand, and if the person who is ill is his or her mother, it makes it even more difficult to tell the truth. Sivan Rosen Geta, a young Israeli mother, tragically found herself in this situation and decided to write a children’s book to explain the situation to her daughter Maya. It was originally published in Hebrew and has now been translated into English, with the title Cancer, and not the Zodiac Crab. The author, who lives in Afula and was first diagnosed at 18 with the rare type of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, was treated successfully and married before she was 22. Yet the tumor metastasized and spread to various organs.

Determined to be a mother, Geta got pregnant and had a girl, Maya. “I looked for tools that could help me explain the disease and its consequences to our only daughter,” she said. But as Geta couldn’t find any, she wrote her own book in Hebrew and drew the colorful illustrations. Now the hardcover book has been released (www.sivanrg.com).

“I hope wholeheartedly that this book will help children and parents who are exposed to cancer, to simplify for them the difficult terms related to and derived from cancer and to get through this difficult challenge as easily as possible, while constantly believing that it can be beaten,” she writes in the foreword. The storyteller is a little girl whose mother has cancer and, like Geta, goes abroad for medical treatment, leaving her with her grandmother.

“Cancer, enough, go away!” the book ends.

“Just go, get out and never come back, not even for a day.” May it be so.

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