News Feature | January 6, 2014

Abnormal Mitochondria May Contribute To Radiation Resistant Cancer

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By Cassandra Leger

Cancers are not created equal nor do they respond the same to treatment and scientists have sought after the reason why for decades. In particular, research has focused on uncovering why certain cancers are very rebellious and stubborn in response to radiation therapy. The answer may lie in studying the mitochondria—the energy power plant of the cell.

A research team lead by Maxim Frolov at the University of Illinois at Chicago has shed light on the previously unknown role that mitochondria play in cell death induced by radiation therapy, as described in a November press release. The team studied the E2F gene, a key player in the natural process of cell death. Fruit flies were fitted with a mutated version of the E2F gene which caused the cells’ mitochondria to be misshapen. When misshapen, mitochondria produce less energy. Importantly, the fruit flies with abnormal mitochondria were resistant to radiation therapy. The study was later introduced to human cells and yielded similar results.

This discovery may help explain why cancer patients react so differently to radiation therapy and may be a building block for pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs which target mitochondrial function to improve radiation therapy outcomes.

Other research teams at the University are focused on understanding the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in cancer, including Michelle Boland and colleagues. A recently published review in the journal Frontiers in Oncology covers research on the role of dysfunctional mitochondria in multiple aspects of cell growth and the relation to cancer diagnosis and treatment.