Scientists believe they may have discovered a key to developing drugs which could help stop the spread of cancer.
By David Millward
6:00PM BST 16 Jun 2013
Experiments carried out by a team at University College London has uncovered clues in what causes the disease to migrate from one part of the body to another.
In many cases death is not caused by the primary tumour, but the secondary growth.
The key follows experiments carried out by a team at University College London using frog and zebrafish embryos.
Scientists identified a mechanism which called ‘chase and run’ which showed how diseased and healthy cells follow each other around the body.
“Nobody knew how this happened, and now we believe we have uncovered it. If that is the case it will be relatively easy to develop drugs that interfere with this interaction," said Prof Roberto Mayor, who led the team.
While the team, led by Professor Roberto Mayor, have not identified what causes cancer in the first place, their research could give vital clues to mechanism which enables it to spread in a disease which claims 150,000 lives a year in Britain.
Their findings are published in Nature Cell Biology.
The key is to understand why cancerous cells attach themselves to healthy cells in the first place.
They did this by mimicking what they believe happens by using comparable types of cell and observing their behaviour.
The role of the cancer cell was taken by neural crest cell, a common form of stem cell which eventually forms animal tissue.
Meanwhile the placode cells, which eventually form part of the cranial nerve, performed the part of the healthy cell.
The experiment showed that placodes not only attracted the neural cells but were followed by them as they tried to escape.
"We use the analogy of the donkey and the carrot to explain this behaviour: the donkey follows the carrot, but the carrot moves away when approached by the donkey,” added Prof Mayor.
"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 tumours.
"Most cancer deaths are not due to the formation of the primary tumour, instead people die from secondary tumours originating from the first malignant cells, which are able to travel and colonise vital organs of the body such as the lungs or the brain."
Eric Theveneau, another member of the team, added: “These cells are very similar in their behaviour to cancer cells and this could be analogous to the cancer system.”
The next step, he added, would entail medical researchers be using their findings to gain a better understanding of how cancer cells behave.
Dr Kat Arney, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the findings but advised caution.
“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."
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