Potential cancer breakthrough as experts discover how tumours spread

Potential cancer breakthrough as scientists finally discover how tumours ‘hijack’ healthy cells to spread around the body

  • Cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread around the body 
  • Metastasis — when cancer spreads — has been incredibly difficult to prevent 
  • Researchers have found it hard to identify key drivers of this process before

A breakthrough in understanding how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments, according to experts.

Scientists have discovered that cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread around the body, completely changing current ways of thinking about cancer.

Despite being one of the main causes of death in cancer patients, metastasis — when cancer spreads — has remained incredibly difficult to prevent.

This is largely because researchers have found it hard to identify key drivers of this process, which could be targeted by drugs.

Now, they have discovered a protein called NALCN may play a key role.

In experiments in mice, they found that blocking the activity of the NALCN protein triggered metastasis.

A breakthrough in understanding how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments, according to experts

Cancerous tumours are made up of living cells which multiply uncontrollably. 

While most of these new, dangerous, cells stick to the original tumour, some are released and can travel round the body through the bloodstream.

Moving cancer cells can, if they survive the journey, become lodged in another part of the body and start one of their own tumours – called a satellite tumour.

These metastatic tumours are typically the most dangerous and form secondary cancers which are harder and sometimes impossible to cure.

However, only a few of the thousands of moving cancer cells in the blood will survive. They can be destroyed by the immune system or smashed up by other blood cells. 

But some may be able to stick to platelets – clotting ingredients – to form clumps which, if stuck in the blood vessel, might buy time for the cancer cell to travel out of the blood and into the body.

Scientists are looking into ways of measuring circulating cancer cells as a way of testing different types of cancer and working out which treatments might work best.

Source: Cancer Research UK 

They also discovered that when they removed the protein from mice without cancer, this caused their healthy cells to leave their original tissue and travel around the body where they joined other organs.

This suggests that metastasis isn’t an abnormal process limited to cancer as previously thought, but is a normal process used by healthy cells that has been exploited by cancers to migrate to other parts of the body.

Group leader for the study, and director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Professor Richard Gilbertson, said: ‘These findings are among the most important to have come out of my lab for three decades.

‘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.’

NALCN stands for sodium (Na+) leak channel, non-selective. Sodium leak channels are expressed predominately in the central nervous system but are also found throughout the rest of the body.

These channels sit across the membranes of cells and control the amount of salt that goes in and out of the cell.

However, it is not yet clear why these channels seem to be implicated so directly in cancer metastasis.

Lead researcher on the study and senior research associate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, 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.

‘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 findings were published in the journal Nature Genetics.

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