Unexpected findings reveal insight into how cancer spreads in the body

Research at Queen Mary University of London, supported by Rosetrees, has shed light on how cancer cells rely on an unusual survival mechanism to help them spread around the body, in a study that could help future development of new treatments to prevent the development of secondary tumours.

The spread of cancer around the body – metastasis – is one of the biggest challenges in cancer treatment. It is often not the original tumour that kills, but secondary growths, which occur when cancer cells break away from the primary site, travel around the body and ‘seed’ new tumours. Normally these cells should be more vulnerable and undergo cell death, but manage to evade normal processes and survive.

The study, published in Nature Communications, identified a key role for molecules known as integrins. These are proteins found on the surface of cells, which normally help them to attach to their surroundings, but develop a brand role in cancer cells. They found that, together with another molecule called c-Met, they send a message to the rest of the  cell to resist death.

Lead researcher Dr Stéphanie Kermorgant from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute said: “Metastasis is currently incurable and remains one of the key targets of cancer research. Our research advances the knowledge of how two key molecules communicate and work together to help cancer cells survive during metastasis. We’re hoping that this might lead to the discovery of new drugs to block the spread of cancer within the body.”

Integrins are already major targets for cancer treatment with drugs either being tested or in use in the clinic. Most integrin inhibitor drugs target their adhesive function and block them on the surface of the cancer cell.

This research was also funded by the UK Medical Research Council, Breast Cancer Now, British Lung Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Barts and The London Charity.

Looking inside a cancer cell This is a microscopy picture of a cell taken from a breast cancer. The red, green and blue colours label key molecules that make the cancer cell survive longer.

Looking inside a cancer cell
This is a microscopy picture of a cell taken from a breast cancer. The red, green and blue colours label key molecules that make the cancer cell survive longer.

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