How Do You Stop Cancer Spreading? Help Its Neighbours Trap It

Credit: Wellcome Images

Credit: Wellcome Images

Cancer requires more than a mutation to become a serious threat to your body. It needs to be able to spread and invade. New research is attacking cancer by targeting its neighbours; helping them glue it in place. 

More than mutation

Considering how frequently mistakes are made copying your genome, the body has some fairly robust systems in place to prevent cancer in youth. However, these start to weaken with age and there are many ways cancer can transition from a slow growing mass into a deadly plague that quickly turns fatal. Scientists across the world are working on new ways of killing this tragic disease, and one route is helping the body to prevent it spreading. 

Experiments have been conducted which show that a cancer cell's neighbours can facilitate toxic growth. In other words, a cancer cell's local area is key to allowing a devastating  expansion. If the cells nearby are generally healthy and aren't riddled with inflammation, its much harder for a tumour to ever take hold. In other words healthy cells can suppress cancer growth. This isn't the rule in every case, but it plays a big role in preventing tumours popping up more than they do. 

Targeting the neighbours

Research has also shown that cancer cells recruit cells nearby and attempt to 'turn' them to the dark side to help their invasion. There's a particular type of cell that emerges in this conversion effort called cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs). Fibroblasts are usually handy cells that help build the scaffolding and cushioning around our organs, but when they're turned bad they start stiffening and changing this matrix. This helps turn the tide in cancer's favour and encourages cell growth and division.

The matrix helps set cells into a flexible structure Credit: The Journal of Cell Biology

The matrix helps set cells into a flexible structure Credit: The Journal of Cell Biology

It's all about the oxygen

A new study at the Francis Crick Institute has discovered that these CAF cells revert back to good behaviour when they're exposed to lower oxygen levels. This helps the matrix remain flexible, and keeps cancer cells safely hemmed in; essentially like a glue, sticking them in place. 

When researchers tested this further, they found that bad behaviour was associated with a change in a protein that helps the cell sense oxygen levels. When they used a drug to trick this protein into thinking it was in a low oxygen environment, the cells started behaving normally again. More crucially, cancer cells had difficulty spreading if its neighbours were treated with this drug. 

This is new research and far from clinical application, but it's another promising development in an evolving field. There are so many new potential ways of killing cancer, but the truth is it's going to take a combined approach. Every weapon we have at our disposal makes cancer that little bit weaker, and this could be a positive addition. 

Read more at The Conversation