What makes cancer cells different from normal cells? That’s a simple question with a complicated answer. In this post, we’re looking at just one of the basic differences: apoptosis.
This is such an important topic that an entire chapter of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide is dedicated to apoptosis. But for now, let’s look at a few videos and some very brief explanations to find out why a lack of apoptosis is a factor in cancer. Or, as one writer put it, cancer is a failure of apoptosis.
Apoptosis: a Natural Way To Die
Every day in the adult human body, 50 to 70 billion cells die and get flushed out. And we don’t notice a thing!
That’s because the process of natural cell suicide, or apoptosis, is completely pain-free.
Here’s a beautiful video showing apoptosis in a human melanoma cell. Watch how it kind of shrinks up and the colors of individual parts of the cell swirl together.
Why Would a Cell Commit Suicide, Anyway?
Well, there could be several reasons, depending upon the cell.
Some cells need to make room. For example, we all had webbed hands in our mother’s womb … until at a certain point the cells in those webs started to commit suicide, and by apoptosis, created our fingers.
Some cells get damaged. Perhaps they are damaged by a virus, an infection, bacteria, etc.
Some cells get deranged. They are changed at the DNA level by a chemical or medication, radiation exposure, or trauma.
Some cells get old. They simply reach the end of their lifespan. They die and are replaced by new, healthy cells.
In any of these cases, a cell’s DNA will naturally turn on apoptosis genes so that the cell naturally, painlessly, easily kills itself.
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Apoptosis for Health
As you can see from the list above, apoptosis genes are REALLY important. They are built into the DNA of every cell in the body, and they are constantly monitoring their cell’s health.
The apoptosis genes are always alert for changes. Changes in the DNA (derangement), damage to the cell, or an inability to function anymore (end of lifespan) “turn on” the apoptosis genes, so they can:
- shrink the cell’s size, probably to keep it from harming its neighbors as it kills itself
- dismantle the cell’s structures
- create “apoptotic bodies,” little tiny dead cell bits that are gobbled up by immune system cells called macrophages
Apoptosis genes are sort of like the automatic braking system in your car. They are always monitoring, but only kick in when necessary.
Apoptosis in Cancer
So … what happens when apoptosis levels are too low? In other words, when cells keep living in an abnormal fashion? Or, in other words, when the automatic braking system is disabled?
Cancer happens, for one. Cancer can be thought of as abnormally low apoptosis levels in body cells.
Without active apoptosis genes to stop them, cancer cells aim to keep living and keep reproducing. They consume body resources, destroy normal architecture, hijack the immune system, derange body metabolism, and continue to live at any cost.
In the end, they zero in towards destroying the very body that nourishes them.
In fact, a lack of apoptosis is a characteristic that ALL cancers share. That means in order for a disease to be called cancer, it must resist cell death or lack apoptosis.
Cancer makes sure that the apoptosis genes in a cell do NOT get activated. It effectively tells them to “sleep.” With the apoptosis genes asleep, the automatic braking system turned off, the cancer cell can multiply as much as it wants to. It can live forever — because no apoptosis genes are awake to make it commit suicide!
Whether you are talking about lymphosarcoma, mast cell tumors, hemangiosarcoma, osteosarcoma, mammary cancers, melanoma, or any other type of cancer … they all feature a lack of apoptosis.
Get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide for helpful tools and information
What Can Restore Apoptosis
So how do we “wake up” those apoptosis genes? Well, there are several apoptogens out there. (Apoptogens are agents that induce apoptosis.)
For example, we used to think that conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation just killed cancer cells directly (cytotoxicity).
It turns out after we have learned more about apoptosis, that some of those treatments ALSO induce apoptosis! So, they’re killing cancer cells directly AND they are waking up apoptosis genes so the cells will commit suicide!
There also are dietary factors that support normal apoptosis levels. In fact, in countries where the cancer rates are low, they tend to eat a lot of ingredients that promote healthy apoptosis. These are mostly plant-based foods that have bitter and brightly colored compounds. Curcumin, luteolin, apigenin, silymarin, gingerols, rutin … these are all found in things like celery, parsley, turmeric, the rinds of citrus fruits and the hulls of peanuts.
I think one of the reasons cancer rates are so high in the western world, in both canine and human, is because we tend to eat diets much lower in these dietary apoptogens!
Best to all,
Here’s a great video that explains apoptosis very clearly. You’ll see how complicated it is — and why it’s so important!
Further Reading and Resources
Hanahan, D., Weinberg R. Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation. Cell, Volume 144, Iss. 5, P646-674, MARCH 04, 2011
Khan N, Adhami VM, Mukhtar H. Apoptosis by dietary agents for prevention and treatment of cancer. Biochem Pharmacol. 2008 Dec 1;76(11):1333-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2008.07.015. Epub 2008 Jul 22. PMID: 18692026; PMCID: PMC2936503.
Dr. Demian Dressler is internationally recognized as “the dog cancer vet” because of his innovations in the field of dog cancer management, and the popularity of his blog here at Dog Cancer Blog. The owner of South Shore Veterinary Care, a full-service veterinary hospital in Maui, Hawaii, Dr. Dressler studied Animal Physiology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis before earning his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. After practicing at Killewald Animal Hospital in Amherst, New York, he returned to his home state, Hawaii, to practice at the East Honolulu Pet Hospital before heading home to Maui to open his own hospital. Dr. Dressler consults both dog lovers and veterinary professionals, and is sought after as a speaker on topics ranging from the links between lifestyle choices and disease, nutrition and cancer, and animal ethics. His television appearances include “Ask the Vet” segments on local news programs. He is the author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Hawaii Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the National Animal Supplement Council and CORE (Comparative Orthopedic Research Evaluation). He is also an advisory board member for Pacific Primate Sanctuary.