Scientists at the University of Cambridge (UoC) have made a breakthrough discovery in understanding how cancer cells spread through the body. This could change the approach to treating metastasis (the spread of cancer cells from a primary site to a secondary site in the body.)
The UoC website explains that the research team have discovered how cancer cells join healthy cells to spread around the body. This was previously thought to be an abnormal process, but now scientists have found that healthy cells also migrate around the body in the same way, which changes the way cancer treatment could be approached.
The researchers found that when they blocked the activity of the NALCN (which is an acronym for sodium (Na+) leak channel, non-selective) protein cells in mice with cancer, it triggered metastasis. However, when NALCN was removed from mice without cancer, the healthy cells continued to spread around the body, contrary to expectations.
From this observation, the scientists concluded that cell migration is a normal process, which is exploited by cancerous cells in order to spread around the body. This could allow for new innovations in how cancer is treated in the future. Presently, metastasis is very difficult to prevent, and is one of the main causes of cancer deaths.
Group Leader for the study and Director of the CRUK Cambridge Centre, Professor Richard Gilbertson, said: “These findings are among the most important to have come out of my lab for three decades.”
He added: “Not only have we identified one of the elusive drivers of metastasis, but we have also turned a commonly held understanding of this on its head, showing how cancer hijacks processes in healthy cells for its own gains.”
“If validated through further research, this could have far-reaching implications for how we prevent cancer from spreading and allow us to manipulate this process to repair damaged organs.”
The scientists hope that through further experimentation and research into how to restore metastasis function in the body, possibly by using existing drugs, they can develop more precisely targeted cancer treatments.
Lead researcher on the study Dr Eric Rahrmann, said: “We are incredibly excited to have identified a single protein that regulates not only how cancer spreads through the body, independent of tumour growth, but also normal tissue cell shedding and repair.”
He added: “We are developing a clearer picture on the processes that govern how cancer cells spread. We can now consider whether there are likely existing drugs which could be repurposed to prevent this mechanism from triggering cancer spreading in patients.”
The researchers are hopeful that they will eventually be able to target the key drivers of metastasis in the body of cancer patients, leading to more effective treatments and higher survival rates in the future. The research paper has been published in the journal Nature Genetics, according to a press release from the UoC.
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