Researchers discover novel mechanism linking changes in mitochondria to cancer cell death
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Credit: University of Notre Dame/Matt Cashore

To stop the spread of cancer, cancer cells must die. Unfortunately, many types of cancer cells seem to use innate mechanisms that block cancer cell death, therefore allowing the cancer to metastasize. While seeking to further understand cancer cell death, researchers at the University of Notre Dame discovered that the activation of a specific enzyme may help suppress the spread of tumors.

The findings, published in Nature Cell Biology, demonstrate that the enzyme RIPK1 decreases the number of mitochondria in a cell. This loss of mitochondria leads to oxidative stress that can potentially kill cancer cells, though researchers speculate the cancer cells could find ways to shut down this effect.

During the study, the Notre Dame team discovered that when the enzyme RIPK1 is activated in a cell, it can cause the number of mitochondria — considered the “power plants” of the cell — to decrease as the cell consumes its own components for energy, a process called mitophagy. This was surprising, given RIPK1 was well-known to regulate necrosis, a completely distinct cell death mechanism.

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