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Disabling cellular assassin prevents cancer

Counterintuitive experiment may help explain why survivors are more vulnerable to other malignancies

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4:45pm, July 31, 2010

Being overly protective can backfire. That’s a lesson that many parents have learned and cancer biologists are beginning to recognize.

Killing off damaged cells is supposed to help protect against cancer, but two new studies show that a massive die-off can lead to the disease instead. The findings, published in the August 1 Genes & Development, may have implications for certain types of cancer therapies, including radiation treatment.

Previous research has demonstrated the importance of p53, a protein that acts as a cell’s security system. The protein senses when a cell is under extreme stress, such as that caused by DNA damage, and dispatches other proteins to deal with the problem in several ways. Some of p53’s minions halt cell growth while others attempt to repair the damage. When all else fails, p53 unleashes Puma, a protein that sets in motion a cell-suicide program called apoptosis.

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