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Study: Cancer cells weakened when they're less acidic

By Allen Cone
Study: Cancer cells weakened when they're less acidic
Researchers have found that cancer cells -- including white blood cells and bone marrow that cause leukemia (above) -- are weakened when they become less acidic, which shows promise of developing new ways to treat the disease. Photo by toeytoey/Shutterstock

July 31 (UPI) -- Researchers have found that cancer cells are weakened when they become less acidic, which they say shows promise for developing new ways to treat the disease.

If the cells' internal pH is lowered, they proliferate less and in a less robust manner, according to researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, Spain. Findings from the computational model, which were done in collaboration with the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., and the University of Maryland, were published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

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"Collectively, our findings suggest that cancer cells have superior fitness at an alkaline pHi, and that their reliance on an alkaline intracellular environment confers vulnerabilities that can be exploited for therapeutics," the researchers wrote. "In accord with previous studies, our findings clearly demonstrate that lowering pHi is a selective vulnerability for cancer cells."

Researchers examined several hundred thousands pieces of data from previous biochemical assays and a database on the gene expression of cancer cells. They developed the computational model to see how pH levels affect the activity of almost 2000 metabolic enzymes.

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"We are a computational lab and we are devoted to systems biology," Dr. Miquel Duran-Frigola, an associate researcher with the structural bioinformatics and network biology lab, said in a press release. "We wanted to address the question on a large scale. Understanding the link between metabolic pathways that work better under different pHs can give us an idea about the mechanisms used by cancer to survive at basic pH."

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After confirming their hypothesis, the researchers want to consider the acidification of the cancer cells themselves and see whether conventional therapies improve the outcome.

Because the metabolic enzymes work with intracellular acidity in the development of cancer, they believe these molecules are possible therapeutic targets.

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Five potential targets have already shown promising results among breast cancer cell lines in the lab.

"This work is still very academic, but we believe that some of the targets identified are ready to be tested in animals, thus allowing us to move into more advanced pre-clinical trial stages," Duran-Frigola said.

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