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Potential cancer breakthrough as scientists finally discover how tumours 'hijack' healthy cells

Breakthrough in understanding how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments, experts say

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

  • Cancer cells ‘hijack’ a process used by healthy cells to spread through the body
  • Metastasis – when cancer spreads – has been incredibly hard to prevent
  • Researchers have struggled to identify the main drivers of this process before

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

Scientists have found that cancer cells “hijack” a process used by healthy cells to spread through the body, completely changing current ways of thinking about cancer.

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

This is largely because researchers have struggled to identify the main drivers of this process, which could be targeted by drugs.

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

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

Breakthrough in understanding how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments, experts say

Breakthrough in understanding how cancer spreads could lead to better treatments, experts say

HOW CAN CANCER SPREAD THROUGH THE BLOOD?

Cancerous tumors are made up of living cells that multiply uncontrollably.

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

Moving cancer cells can, if they survive the journey, lodge in another part of the body and develop 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, only a few of the thousands of cancer cells moving through the blood will survive. They can be destroyed by the immune system or overwritten 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, could buy the cancer cell time to move out of the blood and into the body. .

Scientists are investigating ways to measure circulating cancer cells to test different types of cancer and determine the most effective treatments.

Source: Cancer Research UK

They also discovered that when they removed the protein from cancer-free mice, their healthy cells left their tissue of origin and traveled around 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 that has been exploited by cancers to migrate to other parts of the body.

The study’s group leader and director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Professor Richard Gilbertson, said: ‘These findings are among the most important outputs from my laboratory in three decades.

“Not only have we identified one of the elusive drivers of metastasis, but we have also overturned a common understanding of it, showing how cancer hijacks processes in healthy cells for its own gains.

“If this is validated by further research, it could have far-reaching implications for how we stop 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 primarily in the central nervous system, but are also found throughout the rest of the body.

These channels cross cell membranes and control the amount of salt that enters and exits the cell.

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

The study’s principal investigator and senior research associate at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Dr Eric Rahrmann, said: “We are incredibly delighted to have identified a single protein that not only regulates how cancer spreads in the body, regardless of tumor growth, but also the excretion and repair of normal tissue cells.

“We are developing a clearer picture of the processes that govern the spread of cancer cells.

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

The results were published in the journal Nature Genetics.

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