Researchers May Have Just Uncovered How Cancer Spreads – and How to Slow it
A team of researchers working out of Johns Hopkins have just made a significant discovery in the fight against cancer. The team seems to have identified the trigger that causes cancer to spread, and through that, a way to slow it.
It has generally been assumed in cancer research that the thickness of a tumor and the act of cancer cells spreading throughout the body were separate things. They were believed to be related, of course, but there wasn’t thought to be a direct correlation between the two. The bigger a tumor the more likely it was to spread cancerous cells throughout the body, but it was thought that the size didn’t in itself matter and cancerous cells could spread for any number of reasons.
For researchers studying cancer in a lab and through interactions with patients, the two things didn’t seem to directly be related to each other. It turns out that that isn’t the case, and that could provide a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.
The research team is led by Hasini Jayatilka, who holds an undergraduate degree and a doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. When she was a sophomore she noticed a correlation between the density of cancer cells and how they metastasize. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until she attended a lecture discussing bacterial cells and how they spread that she began to see a connection. Seven years later, Jayatilka and a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins began to experiment with the theory using a 3D model. By combining engineering and medical research, the team was able to make a connection that lab work alone wasn’t able to.
While cancerous tumors have killed more than their fair share, 90-percent of all cancer deaths occur when cancer metastasizes and spreads through the body. The previous theory was that this occurs when a tumor reaches a specific size, which could vary wildly by the person. There wasn’t thought to be a specific trigger, just that the larger a tumor the more likely it spawned cancerous cells that spread. The Johns Hopkins researchers discovered that the key to metastasis is actually down to the density of the tumor, and from, that the group discovered the biomechanical mechanism that tells cancer cells when to spread.
Once they discovered that, they were able to identify a way to slow the spread using existing FDA-approved drugs.
“A female patient with breast cancer doesn’t succumb to the disease just because she has a mass on her breast; she succumbs to the disease because [when] it spreads either to the lungs, the liver, the brain, it becomes untreatable,” said Jayatilaka.
Once the tumor reaches a specific density, it releases two proteins, Interleukin 6 and Interleukin 8. These proteins signal to the cancer cells that the mass is growing too crowded and it is time to spread. Using a combination of current cancer drugs, the team was able to block the release of these proteins. It wasn’t able to stop them entirely, but it affected them enough to significantly slow the spread.
While the treatment has only been used in mice so far, the hope is that if a tumor is caught early enough and the proteins are slowed, the tumor can be dealt with in a relatively risk-free way. Surgery may still be required, but drugs could target the growth and destroy it over time. That could mean treatments like chemotherapy and radiation aren’t;t necessary. The research team’s findings were recently published on May 26 in the journal Nature Communications, paving the way for the next step: human trials.
The research team is excited by the results but like most medical researchers they caution patience, although there this study is a step ahead of most cancer treatment studies. Generally, reaching the point of human trials will take months, even years of jumping through hoops, but given that the proposed treatment uses drugs that have already been FDA-approved it might be a much quicker process. It could also lead to the development of new drugs that could completely stop the spread of cancer cells altogether.
Regardless, the discovery is poised to have a significant impact on cancer treatment for years to come.