Above: Image © xrender, iStockphoto.com

Are you familiar with Darwin's theory of Natural Selection? It explains how living things pass on traits that allow their species to survive. In other words, evolution is the ultimate game of Survivor.

Scientists have seen evolution at work even in tiny organisms like microbes. For instance, if you have a bacterial infection, you’ll probably get a prescription for antibiotics. But you might be given the wrong antibiotic, take the wrong dose, or not take it for the right amount of time. This could allow some of the bacteria making you sick to survive. Over time, this leads to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which have become a big medical problem.

Did you know? Forty-one per cent of all Canadians are expected to develop cancer within their lifetime. It is the leading cause of death in Canada.

Like bacteria, cancer cells can also develop resistance to drugs. Chemotherapeutics (chemotherapy drugs) may kill most of of a patient’s cancer cells. However, if any cancer cells are left alive, they could multiply and form a drug-resistant tumour.

Researchers are continually discovering new ways that cancer cells survive treatment and develop resistance to chemotherapeutics. Not enough of the drugs might get into the cells. Or the pathways within cells that break down the drugs could change.

Sometime, cancer cells are even able to get rid of the drugs trying to kill them. Specific proteins called transporters live on the surface of healthy cells. The transporters’ job is to get rid of harmful toxins.

For instance, a transporter called MRP2 removes compounds containing arsenic. However, it also gets rid of chemotherapy drugs. Cancer cells can make large amounts of these proteins to remove the chemotherapeutics designed to kill them. And this makes them resistant to chemotherapy.

Did you know? Paclitaxel is a natural compound used to treat ovarian, lung, and breast cancers. It comes from the Pacific yew tree.

Is it possible to treat cancer multidrug resistance? So far, attempts to fight multidrug-resistant cancers in patients haven’t been successful. Like Darwin said, “Natural Selection… is immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts.”

However, lab researchers have made some exciting discoveries related to bioflavonoids. These natural compounds are found in fruits and vegetables. They may be able to kill multidrug-resistant cells without harming healthy cells. The theory is that multidrug-resistant cells have more transporters. This makes them more susceptible to the effects of the bioflavonoids. But before bioflavonoid treatments can be tested on patients, researchers need a better understanding of exactly how they kill multidrug-resistant cells.

Multidrug resistance is a major obstacle to treating a range of medical conditions, from bacterial infections to cancer. In particular, treating multidrug resistance in cancer may seem like a losing battle against natural selection. But the results of recent research into bioflavonoids are a reason to be optimistic. Someday, cancer multidrug resistance could become extinct!

Learn More!

About cancer:

Fast Facts Cancer Statistics (2013)
Canadian Cancer Society

About drug resistance:

About possible treatments for multidrug cancer resistance:

A Story of Discovery: Natural Compound Helps Treat Breast and Ovarian Cancers. National Cancer Institute (2015)
National Cancer Institute

Collateral sensitivity of resistant MRP1-overexpressing cells to flavonoids and derivatives (2014)
D. Lorendeau et al., Biochemical Pharmacology 90
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

Robyn Millott


I'm a scientist at heart. I'm never satisfied until I know why something is the way it is. Originally interested in medicine, I did a B.Sc. in Biochemistry at the University of Alberta which allowed me to apply my interest in medicine to scientific research. Through this program I was able to explore the molecular interactions which makeup the processes that happen within our bodies on a daily basis, and how deregulation of these interactions can eventually lead to disease states. After my undergraduate degree, I worked as a science technician at the University of Calgary, and later had an opportunity to work in a cancer laboratory at the University of Oxford. My experience at Oxford inspired me to start a Master's degree in the field of cancer research at the University of Alberta. I am currently researching how the cell decides to live or die with the goal of better understanding how to kill cancer cells. In my spare time, you can find me playing soccer or squash, followed by a game of Catan over home-made pizza.

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