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article imageHow cancer cells spread in the body, scientists gain new insight

By JohnThomas Didymus     Jun 17, 2013 in Science
Scientists at the University College London say they have gained new insight into how cancer cells spread. The findings could revolutionize cancer treatment because most cancer deaths are caused by cells spreading to other parts of the body.
Insight into how malignant cancer cells spread could help in research to develop new drugs for blocking or interfering with the process.
The study was based on the long known fact that cancer cells literally hitch a ride on the back of healthy cells as they spread through the body. The team carried out experiments which helped them to elucidate the details of the mechanism termed "chase and run" through which cancer cells spread by following normal healthy cells around the body.
To study the process, the researchers did not use cancer cells themselves but two types of stem cells derived from frog and zebrafish embryos.
The used the cells to model the behavior of cancer cells spreading through the body and how they "piggyback" on healthy cells.
Professor Roberto Mayor, lead author of the paper titled "Chase-and-run between adjacent cell populations promotes directional collective migration," published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, told The Telegraph: "Nobody knew how this happened, and now we believe we have uncovered it."
In experiments with frog and zebrafish embryos, the authors used neural crest (NC) cells to model the behavior of cancer cells. These are a type of stem cells that form tissues. They are similar to cancer cells being highly migratory like cancer cells.
Chase and run mechanism
Chase and run mechanism
Mayor et al.
To model the behavior of healthy cells they used placodal cells, an epithelial tissue that contributes to sensory organs and are similar to healthy human cells.
The team was able to demonstrate that placodal cells attract neural cells (NC) through chemotaxis. The neural cells "chase" the placodal cells around. The team observed how the placodal cells tried to "run" from the neural cells in the "chase and run" mechanism.
According to the study abstract: "we studied the interaction between neural crest (NC) cells, a highly migratory cell population, and placodal cells, an epithelial tissue that contributes to sensory organs. We found that NC cells chase placodal cells by chemotaxis, and placodal cells run when contacted by NC."
Chase and run mechanism
Chase and run mechanism
Mayor et al.
The researchers believe the interaction they observed between neural and placodal cells illustrates how cancer cells interact with healthy cells. The healthy cells emit signals that attract cancer cells which follow them around the body.
The Telegraph reports Mayor said: "We use the analogy of the donkey and the carrot to explain this behavior: the donkey follows the carrot, but the carrot moves away when approached by the donkey... The findings suggest an alternative way in which cancer treatments might work in the future if therapies can be targeted at the process of interaction between malignant and healthy cells to stop cancer cells from spreading and causing secondary tumors."
Mayor noted the fact that "most cancer deaths are not due to the formation of the primary tumor, instead people die from secondary tumors originating from the first malignant cells, which are able to travel and colonize vital organs of the body such as the lungs or the brain."
While the study does not explain how cancer develops, it has helped to elucidate a key process through which cancer spreads. Mayor said: "If that is the case it will be relatively easy to develop drugs that interfere with this interaction."
According to The Telegraph, Eric Theveneau, a member of the research term, said: "These cells are very similar in their behavior to cancer cells and this could be analogous to the cancer system."
The researchers hope their findings will help subsequent studies increase knowledge of how cancer cells spread and how to use drugs to stop the process.
Dr Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, greeted the work with caution, saying: "This research helps to reveal some of the fundamental biological processes that might be at work as cells move around the body, but the scientists have only looked at developing frog and zebrafish embryos rather than specifically looking at cancer cells. So there's a very long way to go to see whether this knowledge can be translated into new treatments for cancer patients."
Ninemsn reports that Dr Ian Oliver, CEO of the Cancer Council, said: "The beauty of knowing something about that is that there must be some signalling between the normal cells and the cancer cells and if you could find a way to disrupt that signalling you could find a way of stopping the cancer spreading. It's about trying to find the mechanism for how these cancer cells get out and manage to spread by the bloodstream all around the body. If they find out precisely what the mechanism is, then you can find a drug that can block it."
More about Cancer, frog and zebrafish embryos, chase and run mechanism, cancer spread, Cancer cells
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