Inducing Necroptosis of Cancer Cells with Chinese Medicine

English Translation | Ruby Chen
Photo | Editorial Board with some provided by the interviewee

Chen Xiuping, associate professor in the Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences, along with his research team, is working to develop new strategies for treating cancer with Chinese medicine based on non-apoptotic ‘programmed necrosis’ of cancer cells (otherwise known as ‘necroptosis’, which means genetically controlled cell death).

Prof Chen says there are two forms of cell death: programmed and non‑programmed. ‘Programmed cell death’ refers to cell death controlled by specific genes and proteins, such as apoptosis, which is analogous to the natural death of a person.‘Unprogrammed cell death’ refers to the sudden death of cells in an extreme environment, which is similar to the accidental death of a person. Necroptosis is a non‑apoptotic method of programmed death. When this form of cell death occurs, it activates RIP1, RIP3, and MLKL proteins.MLKL proteins form small pores in the cell membrane, resulting in changes in osmotic pressure inside and outside the cell, which in turn causes cell death. He explains: ‘The cells “swell” like balloons, and when the swelling reaches a certain point, the cells burst and die. Like apoptosis, necroptosis can also directly kill cancer cells.’

Prof Chen Xiuping

When asked why he decided to study necroptosis induced by Chinese medicine, Prof Chen says that for years, basic research on traditional Chinese medicine in cancer treatment has focused on the induction of apoptosis. However, compared with clinically applied Western medicine, the efficacy ofChinese medicine in inducing apoptosis is relatively low. One of the reasons for this outcome is that cancer cells are ‘cunning’ ‑ they become resistant to drugs over time, and when that happens, apoptosisis not effective any more. This is where necroptosis comes in. Necroptosis can kill cancer cells that are resistant to apoptosis. Therefore, Prof Chen and his team are studying the characteristics and advantages of Chinese medicines, in an effort to find Chinese medicine ingredients that can induce necroptosis.‘After several years of hard work, we have identified several ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine such as Reynoutria japonica and Salvia miltiorrhiza that can induce necroptosis,’ says Prof Chen.

Prof Chen Xiuping has identified several ingredients in Reynoutria japonica that can induce necroptosis

Although the team is still at the basic research stage,Prof Chen says that the efficacy of this strategy of inducing necroptosis of cancer cells has already been confirmed in animal testing. He says, ‘In view of the increasingly common resistance to cancer drugs and the low efficacy of Chinese medicine‑induced apoptosis, this may be a promising research direction for treating cancer with traditional Chinese medicine.’

Prof Chen Xiuping has studied pharmacology for nearly two decades. He has published more than 150papers in SCI‑indexed journals, and has applied for six patents. He has headed scientific research projects in mainland China and Macao. He is a two‑time recipient of the Macao Science and Technology Award in the ‘Natural Science Award’ category.

ISSUE 22 | 2020

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