22 mei 2015

Breakthrough in research on cancer metastasis

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In an article published in this week’s edition of Cell magazine, scientists from the Hubrecht Institute describe a major discovery in research on cancer metastasis. The scientists show that cancer cells that metastasize, can copy this behavior to less malignant cancer cells. This discovery provides fundamental new insights into the behavior of cancer and may offer prospects for improved diagnosis and treatment. 

Cancer is caused by an accumulation of errors in the hereditary information (DNA) of cells. Some errors cause cells to ignore the signals that control growth and differentiation, leading to uncontrollable cell division. This eventually leads to the growth of a tumor in which tumor cells acquire more and more errors. Because these DNA mistakes can be different in each tumor cell (tumor heterogeneity), the behavior of these individual tumor cells can also vary. This makes the treatment of cancer difficult: some combinations of DNA errors make certain tumor cells resistant to therapy.

Filming cancer 
To better understand the behavior of individual tumor cells, the research group of prof. dr. Jacco van Rheenen of the Hubrecht Institute developed special microscopy techniques (intravital microscopy) to film the behavior of cancer cells in living organisms. The researchers gave tumor cells with different DNA errors a different color, a ‘fluorescent label’, to let them emit light in different colors. By filming these colored cells it became clear which cells are motile and can travel through the body to cause metastases.

Anoek Zomer, scientist in the research group of prof. dr. Jacco van Rheenen, and her colleagues used the intravital microscopy techniques to show that cancer cells with DNA errors that cause malignancy can transfer their malignant behavior to less malignant cancer cells that do not have these DNA errors. Their movies show that malignant cancer cells release very small vesicles containing molecules that make cells malignant. By filming tumors, the scientists show that less malignant cells that take up these vesicles change their behavior: the less malignant cells become more malignant and start metastasizing. The scientists also show that the dangerous vesicles can travel to other tumors through the blood, and that the copying of malignant behavior can also occur over long distances.

This study shows that the behavior of cells with certain DNA errors can be copied to cells that do not have these DNA errors. This is of great importance for follow-up studies in order to be able to better diagnose, prevent and cure cancer and metastases.