Nature has a cure for cancer, new research shows

The Research column will be a weekly feature on the scientific opportunities on campus written by staff writer Diler Haji.

The Tasmanian devil is one of a few animals that is evolving to fight cancer. Research of this evolution trait could one day help scientists cure cancer in humans. (Chen Wu/Flickr)

Again and again, basic science boomerangs back unexpectedly to give the applied sciences fuel for vigor.

Take cancer for example. Cancer costs the country over $88 billion in a barrage of hospital visits, stays and drugs, according to the American Cancer Society, lagging only behind the $313 billion cost of heart disease annually, according to Healthline. When you get past the bureaucracy and economic machinery of healthcare itself, the cure to cancer may have already been invented by nature through animals we often do not associate with potentially saving our lives, like Tasmanian devils and wasps.

Basic science seeks to understand the world, how it works and how it formed, including the evolution of organisms throughout time and space. So what does this have to do with cancer? It turns out that the Tasmanian devil (the living animal, not the manic character from Looney Tunes) has grown a resistance to cancer, according to a recently published article in Science.

These creatures have lost roughly 80 percent of their population in the last 20 years to a contagious cancer that causes DFTD (Devil facial tumor disease), but those who have survived the cancerous onslaught have showed changes in genes linked to cancer and immunity to infectious diseases. It seems that evolution has selected for a better, less cancer-prone Tasmanian devil.

So, how does this work? Basically, the changes in the Tasmanian devil genome caused by pressure from DFTD allowed the creature’s immune system to fend off cancerous infection. The question now is how close can these discoveries bring the applied scientists (oncologists for example) to solving the mysteries of cancer in humans?

While Tasmanian devils provide the latest in the biological fight against cancer, an unlikely and often unknown group of insects could yield the next big breakthrough – wasps.    

Polybia paulista is a Brazilian wasp that lives in social colonies similar to that of ants and bees. The wasp’s venom contains a peptide (a small version of a protein) called MP1, which selectively kills bladder and prostate cancer cells in humans. It has also been shown to kill leukemia cells that are resistant to multiple drugs. The most amazing feature of this miracle venom is that it does not kill normal cells.

The venom of the Brazilian wasp has been shown to kill leukemia cells that are resistant to multiple drugs. (Gustavo Mazzarollo/Flickr) 

This is a far cry from the pain and suffering caused by treatments like chemotherapy.

The wasp’s venom attacks specific lipids on the surface of cells and creates gaping holes in the membranes enclosing those cells, causing the inner contents to leak out and render the cell useless. Normal cells have these lipids on the inside of their membranes, while cancer cells have them on the outside, giving MP1 the perfect target to search and destroy.

How this evolved in wasps is unknown, but somehow natural processes have concocted unique ways of dealing with diseases that we as a society spend billions trying to remedy.

Tasmanian devils may unlock the genetics behind cancer immunity and modified versions of MP1 from wasp venom could help us understand how to channel the selectivity and potency needed to battle fierce adversaries to human health.

I’d bet the link between the basic biology of these animals and the applied practicality of the information they offer will be far more important than many of us ever could have imagined.

Stay tuned.  


Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.