Targeting cancer’s energy supply could stop its spread

21st July 2022

Researchers we fund in Germany have found an innovative way to stop cancer cells spreading. Metastasis - when cancer spreads from where it first forms to elsewhere in the body - is a major cause of death in patients with cancer. This exciting research reveals a new way we could prevent metastasis – by stopping cancer cells producing the extra energy needed to grow and spread. This breakthrough will hopefully lead to new life-saving treatments for cancer patients in the future.

Worldwide Cancer Research scientists Dr Michaela Frye and Dr Sylvain Delaunay

Dr Michaela Frye and her team have been looking at how mitochondria, often called the ‘powerhouse of the cell’, are involved in metastasis in head and neck cancer. Mitochondria generate the energy that cells need to function and cutting off this energy supply may stop cancer cells from being able to spread.

Mitochondria contain genetic material, called RNA, which carries specific instructions read from DNA. The researchers discovered that a change to a molecule found in mitochondrial RNA boosts the ability of the mitochondria to produce energy in head and neck cancer cells. That change is called “m5C” and the researchers found that cells with this change are better at producing the energy they need to spread. When the team stopped the m5C change from happening in cancer cells in mice, the cancer did not spread as much. This is an important breakthrough in our understanding of cancer metastasis, and it suggests that it might be possible to target other changes to the RNA in mitochondria as part of new cancer cures.

The next step for Dr Frye and her team is to confirm their findings in human patients with head and neck cancer and other solid tumours. They also need to look for a drug which safely targets this change and prevent metastasis. Luckily this may be relatively straight-forward. There are some antibiotics already approved for use which also target mitochondria. This means the researchers can look at existing data on cancer patients who have been given these antibiotics and explore whether this could be a viable treatment option, without having to start a new clinical trial.

Dr Frye’s study focuses on head and neck cancer as this has a high tendency to spread, and poor survival rates. Currently fewer than 1 in 2 people diagnosed with oral squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form of mouth and neck cancer, will survive for 10 years or more after their diagnosis.  This research gives hope that we can improve these survival rates with better treatment options for patients.

Frye Dr Michaela Frye, Worldwide Cancer Research scientist
Our study points to novel therapeutic drug targets in mitochondria to prevent the spread of invasive cancer. We have still got a lot of work ahead of us, but The Funding from Worldwide Cancer Research helped us to get a step closer to succeed in fighting cancer metastasis, the leading cause of cancer deaths.
Dr Lynn Turner, Director of Research at Worldwide Cancer Research
We are extremely grateful to our Curestarters who enable us to fund scientists like Dr Michaela Frye. By funding the best discovery cancer research now, we hope to see new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer in the future.”

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