In the Lab, Two Ways to Take on Cancer

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Throw a few more cancer cures on the pile. Researchers from UCLA and Maryland-based Human Genome Sciences have discovered two new angiogenesis inhibitors -- proteins that can starve a tumor by choking off its blood supply -- called METH-1 and METH-2 that may be 50 times more effective than anything currently being studied. TIME science writer Christine Gorman says that while success in the lab is all well and good, she warns that advances like these have a long history of turning into dead ends. "Angiogenesis inhibitors have a 20-year history of disappointment when they’re tried outside the laboratory," she says. "The problem is, blood supply is how we live. One of the most powerful such inhibitors ever was thalidomide – that caused babies to be born with no arms because it was so good at pinching off new growth."

More promise may lie in a sort of mimicry, studying the body’s own approach to fighting cells that go bad – and Thursday saw some success on that front too. Publishing in Science magazine, a team from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have identified a protein, called Fas ligand, that they think is the body’s own treatment for skin cancer from within. You may know it as peeling. "The body’s traditional respose to mutation is ‘You change, you die,’" says Gorman. "When a skin cell sustains enough sun damage to its DNA that it may turn cancerous, the body sends this protein to kill the cell before it can reproduce." The mystery, of course, is why it doesn’t do it every time, but the researchers dream of turning Fas ligand into a supercharged exfoliant for the sun-damaged. Someday. "It’s a long way from the lab to the drug store," says Gorman, "But it makes sense to start out with something the body has already developed for itself." Either that, or start plugging that ozone layer.