“Killing these cancer stem cells is the holy grail of cancer treatments and therefore holds promise for complete eradication of cancer,” says Dr. Sarit Larisch of the University of Haifa.
These are not words pronounced lightly; instead, they follow more than a decade of research that could give hope to cancer patients worldwide. Along with her colleagues, Larisch has established the basis for developing a new, more effective treatment for cancer using a protein called ARTS.
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ARTS is a protein, which along with a number of other proteins and enzymes, regulates what is known as apoptosis. Apoptosis is the process of programmed cell death which occurs when a cell is damaged, mutated or no longer functional. ARTS acts as a trigger for cell death, its presence allowing for enzymes called caspases to destroy the non-functional cell.
But this process is missing in cancer cells.
Destroying cancer cells using the natural process of self-destruction
Larisch’s research shows that unlike normal cells, cancer cells have an absence of the ARTS protein. “Without the ARTS protein, cells can’t be triggered to self-destruct. As a result cancer cells can survive and develop into a tumor,” she tells NoCamels.
“We have found that ARTS is lost in many types of cancers. Therefore, determining levels of ARTS in blood could provide a marker to alert to the possibility of developing certain types of cancers.” Consequently, Dr. Larisch believes that small molecules that mimic ARTS could restore the ability of cancer cells to be killed selectively using the natural process of apoptosis.
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Reinventing cancer treatment
“ARTS-based cancer drugs could potentially change the treatment method of cancer worldwide,” Larisch tells NoCamels. “We have found that ARTS is particularly important for the death of defective stem cells. We therefore believe that ARTS-based drugs will specifically eliminate cancer stem cells (the cells that drive the growth of a tumor and are often resistant to chemotherapy or radiotherapy).
The therapy would also minimize common side-effects of conventional cancer treatment. “All currently available cancer drugs have unwanted side effects because they harm normal cells as well. In contrast, ARTS-based cancer drugs should only kill cancer cells because they act by specifically correcting the defect in their cell suicide program, caused by the loss of ARTS,” says Larisch.
13 years in the making
Dr. Sarit Larisch discovered the protein during her post-doctoral studies at the NCI/NIH , Bethesda, MD. This discovery was first published in the journal “Nature Cell Biology” in the year 2000. She has been working on this project ever since and has revealed how ARTS is essential for cell death on a molecular level. Cancer research was Larisch’s initial interest, which she returned to after the discovery of ARTS.
“After completing my PhD in Tumor Immunology, I became very interested in apoptosis. The decisions a cell makes which determine whether it will live or die fascinated me.” It was not until further in her career, when Larisch discovered the connection between the ARTS protein and cancer, that she began focusing on using the information gathered about this protein for the development of novel ways for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Despite the success of her work, Larisch says that finding support and funding was not always easy. “I consider myself very lucky with the research support that we’ve gotten. Unfortunately, developing cancer drugs is very costly and goes beyond typical academic budgets. Right now, we’re ready to start developing ARTS-based cancer drugs. But we need more funding, to move full speed ahead.”
Her research received funding from the Israeli Science Foundation, the United States – Israel Binational Research Foundation (BIRD), as well as some private donors.
Larisch completed her education at the Hadassah Medical School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She moved on to obtain her post-doctorate degree at the National Cancer Institute/NIH in the United States. Upon discovering the ARTS protein, she returned to Israel and founded her own research laboratory. She is currently the head of the Biology and Medical Sciences department at the University of Haifa. Larisch has had a Visiting Professor appointment at the Rockefeller University in New York for the past 12 years, where she works in close collaboration with Professor Hermann Steller and members of his lab.
Currently, she and her colleagues are in contact with several investors and pharmaceutical companies to obtain funding for ARTS-based cures. Larisch hopes to start developing ARTS-based cancer drugs as soon as possible and establish the ARTS protein as a biomarker of susceptibility to cancer.