SCIENTISTS have revealed for the first time that cancer cells can reverse a process which irrevocably commits normal cells to die, in a study published in the British Journal of Cancer*.

Researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong treated human cervical, skin, liver and breast cancer cells each with three different chemicals which initiate cell suicide – known as apoptosis. They wanted to see if cancer cells could survive once they have passed the point of no return for normal cell death.

The researchers found that the cancer cells recovered once chemicals to induce the cells’ suicide process were removed – even after the cells had passed normal critical checkpoints.

Their findings reveal an unexpected escape tactic which cancer cells could use to survive chemotherapy.

The cancer cells regained their shape, function and continued to divide after the chemicals were removed. Cells failed to recover only once the nucleus had started to disintegrate – an event right at the end of the normal cell suicide process.

Professor Ming-Chiu Fung, author based at The Department of Biology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “We have shown that various cancer cell lines can survive programmed cell death. This research suggests the existence of an escape tactic which cancer cells might call upon to survive chemotherapy treatment.

“Our finding sparks new leads to research what drives cancer cells to come back to life after chemotherapy treatment. Or to what extent this ability of cancer cells to reverse cell death contributes to their continued division and growth during cycles of anticancer treatment. Answers to these questions will provide potential new therapeutic targets in our battle against cancer.”

Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s cancer information director said: “This eye-opening discovery has created an entire map of new routes to explore in the search for new therapy targets. It is an intriguing advance and one that we hope will play a useful part in our efforts to beat cancer.”


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*HL Tang et al. Reversibility of apoptosis in cancer cells. British Journal of Cancer (2008).

Cell lines were seeded on tissue culture plates before being subject to the three apoptotic chemicals: jasplakinolide (Invitrogen), staurosporine (Sigma) and ethanol (Scharlau).

About the British Journal of Cancer (BJC)

The BJC is owned by Cancer Research UK. Its mission is to encourage communication of the very best cancer research from laboratories and clinics in all countries. Broad coverage, its editorial independence and consistent high standards have made BJC one of the world’s premier general cancer journals.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Founded in 1963, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is a forward-looking comprehensive research university with a global vision and a mission to combine tradition with modernity, and to bring together China and the West. Offering a wide range of multi-disciplinary courses, the University is dedicated to excellence in both teaching and research. For more information about CUHK, please visit

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