A team of researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have discovered a key genetic defect that can halt cell growth and force cells into a death-evading survival state.

The findings reveal an important mechanism within cells that may lead to the development of effective treatment for diseases such as cancer.

Associate Professor Joan Heath and her team from the Institute made the discovery after examing how zebrafish embryos harbour genetic mutations which prevent rapid cell growth during organ development.

“We discovered that a mutation in a relatively under-studied gene called pwp2h leads to the faulty assembly of ribosomes, the ‘protein factories’ of cells, and stops cells from dividing,” Associate Professor Heath said.

“What was intriguing was that cells under stress from ribosome failure did not die. Instead, the cells switched on a survival mechanism called autophagy and began obtaining nutrients by digesting their own intracellular components.”

Ribosomes are large molecular machines in cells that manufacture proteins, and are critical for cell growth and division. Currently, there is great interest in developing therapeutics to block ribosome production, as a strategy to prevent cancer cells from dividing.