Why you should care

Because if you want to know how to elude death, ask a killer.

You can learn a lot from a conqueror. The ancient Egyptians learned to master the bow and horse-drawn chariot from their Hyksos overlords. The Russians learned about the power of fear from the Mongols who ruled over them for 200 years.

Similarly, disease and pathology can teach us a lot about life. And one of humankind’s greatest conquerors has the potential to teach us a lot about how to live, and even how to live longer. Because believe it or not, the road to the fountain of youth forks at the pathway to the familiar and feared foe that we know as cancer. How can that be?

Cancer flirts with immortality by managing to avoid natural programmed cell death.

For centuries medical researchers struggled to understand how cancer cells so insidiously replicate, grow and infiltrate the vital organs they take over (even if Michael Douglas seems to know exactly what caused his own). A cancer cell is really just a normal cell gone rogue. It flirts with immortality by managing to avoid natural programmed cell death , growing and infiltrating vital organs until it has choked the function out of them.

But cancers of many different kinds (breast, lung, blood, etc.) have also found a way to exploit one of the most fundamental and powerful tools present in every cell of the body — the cellular equivalent of the long-sought fountain of youth.

Color photo of scientist working with stem cells.

Source Getty

Embryonic stem (ES) cells received much of their fame when the Bush administration successfully banned the scientific research community from having greater access to them. The earliest cells present during the development of the human fetus, ES cells are magical in their dual ability to stay young and immortal, while possessing the unique capacity to develop into every kind of cell in the human body (brain, kidney, muscle, skin, etc.). And though this latter trait has the scientific community hopeful about their potential for curing degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord paralysis and more, it is the former quality that may prove far more significant.

As cells in the body routinely divide and replicate in order to replenish old and damaged cells, they age and accumulate errors in their DNA. DNA is the cell’s vital hard drive that contains all the information that makes each person unique and encodes for every function that the body needs to perform. But with each cell division, cells get older and more error-prone until an alarm is signaled to activate programmed cell death, equivalent to cellular suicide, in order to avoid passing critical errors in DNA to the next generation of cells.

ES cells utilize a recently discovered gene called JUVE, which, when activated, is able to find and fix the errors that occur during cell division. The effect is two-fold: ES cells stay young even after dividing, and they remain immortal. JUVE is critical in early development of the fetus and allows cells to rapidly divide with high integrity and without aging. Behold the fountain of youth.

But the body completely deactivates JUVE early in human development — moments after the young fetus attaches to the uterus — and JUVE is never seen again in life. At least not until a predator hijackes the cell’s playbook.

Cancer turns the JUVE gene back on, using it as a weapon against cellular death — and the next game-changing breakthrough in the fight against this disease will occur when researchers nail down the as-yet untold story of just how these rogue cells manage to reactivate JUVE, bestowing upon themselves the ability to live and replicate under the toughest treatment conditions and radical surgeries. Research has already begun into understanding how to turn JUVE on and off in the lab using animal models.

Color photo of an artist rendition of DNA made of purple and orange hues on black backdrop

Source Corbis

When we master the secret to making JUVE operational, it will cause a seismic shift in the focus of research into cancer. If such a fundamental link to the disease can be neutralized, the scourge of cancer may lose its lethal sting, just like the once-certain death knell of HIV, or perhaps it will be made as obsolete as polio or smallpox.

And that is only the beginning. Uncovering how cancer cells awaken the dormant JUVE gene means that scientists can apply the gene’s latent replenishing power to treat other afflictions like neurodegenerative disorders, diabetes, aging and a host of other medical conditions and illnesses. If JUVE can be manipulated for good, rather than the evil that is cancer, it can be used to restore and rejuvenate cells that have been damaged or are diseased.

The time for turning the tables on cancer and other life-threatening illness is drawing closer, and vanquishing them will indeed be sweet. And when that time comes, as the old adage goes, living well — not to mention longer — will be the best revenge.

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