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Costume changes allow cancer to spread

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For many types of cancer it is not the original (or primary) tumour that kills the patient. It’s the secondary tumours, those that appear in other organs, driven by cancer cells escaping from the original tumour and using the blood supply as a transport network to move dangerously around the body. Cancer often starts in a non-life threatening part of the body, but when it spreads (also known as metastasis) it can find its way into vital organs, such as the lungs and brain, where it becomes lethal.

The process that allows cancer cells to escape from the original tumour is something that researchers are still trying to understand. The simplistic view is that cancer cells morph their molecular features, making themselves less “adhesive”, and more capable of moving away from the tumour and infiltrating nearby blood vessels.

Research, co-funded by generous donations from Worldwide Cancer Research supporters, has now revealed that cancer cells go through as many as six different “costume changes” during this process, each one providing a different set of traits linked to the cells’ ability to spread. Scientists have a name for this process, EMT – or Epithelial to Mesenchymal Transition.

Dr Ievgenia Pastushenko

“Much of our work is supported by charities such as Worldwide Cancer Research and our research group heartily thanks all the people who in a totally selfless way support cancer research worldwide. Your personal donations to cancer research is a gesture of enormous human generosity.”

The popular view was that as cancer cells transition from their “epithelial” costume to their “mesenchymal” costume the better they should be at migrating and invading the nearby tissue around a tumour. But Dr Ievgenia Pastushenko, a researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles who was involved in the new research, suggests something altogether stranger might be occurring:

“Our data are counter-intuitive in that what we found was that the tumour cells in the early stages of EMT – when the cells still conserve their epithelial characteristics but have acquired some mesenchymal features - are the most metastatic. These findings are very important for our understanding of the metastatic process, but also for developing new therapeutic strategies that would specifically target these metastatic cells.”

This research is the first time that scientists have been able to precisely analyse the characteristics of the different “costumes” cancer cells wear during EMT. “We now know which genes these cells express at different stages of the process so we now know what makes highly metastatic cancer cells different from those that are less so.”

Dr Pastushenko and colleagues have already begun to look into the clinical applications of their work. By blocking one of the characteristics associated with the most metastatic cancer cells, they have been able to prevent the ability of a type of skin cancer to spread in mice.

“Our lab continues to try and understand more about how these fundamental biological mechanisms allow cancers to become metastatic. This is vital knowledge for us to open new avenues to identify new therapeutic targets that could stop the spread of cancer.”

“Much of our work is supported by charities such as Worldwide Cancer Research and our research group heartily thanks all the people who in a totally selfless way support cancer research worldwide. Your personal donations to cancer research is a gesture of enormous human generosity.”

The original research article is available to read here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0040-3

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0040-3

 

Science Communications Manager

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