Research: Cells’ ability to eat themselves holds the key to treatments for cancer and Parkinson’s

Date 15.04.2019

Human cells’ ability to ‘eat’ themselves could unlock treatments for diseases including cancer and Parkinson’s – according to new research led by the University of Northampton.

A team of researchers – led by University of Northampton’s geneticist Dr Jamal Nasir – explored the cellular ‘self-cannibalisation’ process known as autophagy which occurs when our bodies respond to stress, starvation or infection, to rid themselves of anything unnecessary or dysfunctional.

A mutation has now been found in the major regulatory gene for autophagy resulting in a complex condition affecting all major organs.

Researchers believe this gene can be manipulated, leading to control over how affected cells consume themselves. In time they believe this could then be developed into a method to use the human body to fight illness using its own defences.

The findings have been published in the esteemed international science journal Brain.

Dr Nasir said of the findings: “The cells’ ‘self-cannibalism’ has been linked to various clinical conditions but direct evidence for this has been lacking. Here, we show that a mutation in the major gene for autophagy affects every tissue and organ leading to neurological, cardiac, cognitive, dental, skeletal and other abnormalities.

“This finding firmly places autophagy as a potential disease-causing mechanism for a broad range of conditions and raises hope for new therapies.

“Although this is early days, the possible applications of our research raise the hope for much needed new treatments for clinical conditions such as many cancers and Parkinson’s disease.”

The researchers looked at the cells of members of a family who shared a condition that led to complex developmental problems affecting different parts of the body. For instance, they all experienced speech and language problems, had bone abnormalities and heart conditions.

Using cells taken from the patients’ skin, Dr Nasir’s team – working with Professor Sharon Tooze of The Crick Institute – showed that a mutation in the autophagy gene affected the cells’ ability to bind another protein in the first crucial step of the process that initiates autophagy.

By not being able to bind to this protein, the cell’s ability to more easily consume itself and digest its contents was significantly reduced. Geneticists who can ‘switch on’ this binding ability can control how infected cells consume themselves, therefore using the human body to fight illness.

Read the full research paper: A mutation in the major autophagy gene, Wipi2, associated with global developmental abnormalities.

*The full list of research organisations:

  • University of Northampton (Lead)
  • Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan
  • Bacha Khan Medical College
  • The Francis Crick Institute
  • Islamia College Peshawar
  • King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
  • North West School of Medicine
  • George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sungshin Women’s University.