MRC Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine
MRC Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine


The “dark side” of autophagy in cancer

A new study by Dr Simon Wilkinson's research group shows that tumour cells hijack the cell's protein recycling mechanism to get rid of cancer suppressor protein TRAF3. November 2017

Dr Simon Wilkinson
Dr Simon Wilkinson

Autophagy is the process by which cells “keep fit” by binning and recycling their old and damaged components. This process is hugely important for healthy ageing, so it is no surprise that the discovery of its mechanisms was honoured by the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. There is also accumulating evidence that autophagy plays important role in cancer and our scientists are heavily involved in cancer-related autophagy research.

In a recent study that has been published in the journal Nature Communications, a team led by Dr Simon Wilkinson from the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre revealed that some tumour cell types can subvert autophagy to attack a protein molecule called TRAF3. TRAF3 ordinarily acts as a suppressor of cancer growth and its elimination via autophagy can help tumour cells thrive. The team’s results suggests that it might be possible to develop future cancer treatment aiming to block these “corrupt” functions of autophagy while simultaneously allowing it to perform its normal job. While there is still a long way between these experimental findings and potential clinical applications, the work provides important new insights that increase our understanding of autophagy in cancer and will stimulate future investigations in this field.


Dr Simon Wilkinson Research Group

Article in Nature Communications: Autophagy acts through TRAF3 and RELB to regulate gene expression via antagonism of SMAD proteins

General information about autophagy

Information about 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine