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Potential breakthrough in cancer as scientists finally discover how tumors ‘hijack’ healthy cells

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Possible breakthrough in cancer as scientists finally discover how tumors ‘hijack’ healthy cells to spread throughout the body

  • Cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread throughout the body
  • Metastasis – when cancer spreads – was incredibly hard to prevent
  • Researchers have found it difficult to identify key drivers of this process earlier

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

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

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

This is largely because researchers have found it difficult to identify the key drivers of this process, which drugs may be targeted at.

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

In experiments on mice, they found that blocking the activity of the NALCN protein caused metastasis.

A breakthrough in understanding how the spread of cancer could lead to better treatments, according to experts

A breakthrough in understanding how the spread of cancer could lead to better treatments, according to experts

HOW CAN CANCER SPREAD THROUGH THE BLOOD?

Cancerous tumors consist of living cells that multiply uncontrollably.

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

Moving cancer cells, if they survive the journey, can become trapped in another part of the body and start one of their own tumors — called a satellite tumor.

These metastatic tumors are usually the most dangerous and form secondary cancers that are more difficult and sometimes impossible to cure.

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

But some may be able to attach to platelets — clotting components — to form clumps that, if left in the blood vessel, can give the cancer cell time to travel out of the blood and into the body.

Scientists are exploring ways to measure circulating cancer cells as a way to test different types of cancer and figure out which treatments may work best.

Source: Cancer Research UK

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

This suggests that metastasis is not an abnormal process limited to cancer as previously thought, but a normal process used by healthy cells exploited by cancer 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 come out of my lab in three decades.

“Not only have we identified one of the elusive drivers of metastasis, but we’ve turned a widely accepted understanding of it on its head by showing how cancer hijacks processes in healthy cells for its own benefit.”

“If validated by further research, it 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 primarily expressed 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 going in and out of the cell.

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

Principal investigator of the study and senior research associate at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Dr. Eric Rahrmann, said: ‘We are incredibly pleased to have identified a single protein that regulates not only how cancer spreads throughout the body, independent of tumor growth, but also the shedding and repair of normal tissue cells.

‘We are developing a clearer picture of the processes that determine how cancer cells spread.

“We can now look at whether there are likely existing drugs that could be repurposed to prevent this mechanism from causing the spread of cancer in patients.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Genetics.