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Cancer’s Thieving Ways

Mitochondria are essential for tumour growth, not for energy production but to enable cancer cells to synthesise nuclear DNA. Wire_man/Adobe

Mitochondria are essential for tumour growth, not for energy production but to enable cancer cells to synthesise nuclear DNA. Wire_man/Adobe

By Jiri Neuzil, Lanfeng Dong & Mike Berridge

Shutting down the mechanisms that enable developing tumours to steal mitochondria from the cells around them opens the way to a broad-spectrum treatment for a vast array of cancers.

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Mitochondria are energy-generating organelles in most of the cells within complex organisms. They originated when specialised bacteria were engulfed by other primitive cells two billion years ago.

Today, mammalian mitochondria retain a minute circular genome that’s about 180,000 times smaller than our nuclear genome. While it was long-ignored by geneticists, the role of mitochondrial DNA in human disease is now well-established. Furthermore, many nuclear genes that are essential for mitochondrial respiration have been identified.

While our nuclear genome has about 22,000 genes inherited from both parents, mitochondria are maternally inherited and have only 37 genes. Thirteen of these mitochondrial genes encode proteins that are essential for respiration, while the remaining 24 make RNA molecules for the specialised protein machinery that forms these 13 respiratory proteins.

In 2015 our research showed that tumour cells that lack mitochondrial DNA will not develop into tumours unless they can acquire mitochondria from surrounding cells. While normal cancer cells will form tumours in mice within 7–10 days, cancer cells without mitochondrial DNA take 20–30 days to start forming tumours, during which time they acquire mitochondria from nearby non-cancer cells.

How mitochondria move between cells in animals is not known, but membrane bridges and...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.