Researchers out of University College London (UCL) say they have discovered the mechanism that causes the spread of cancer. This new metastasis explanation — a monumental breakthrough — may even lead to the long awaited viable cure for the disease.
For the basis of their analysis, the research team led by Professor Roberto Mayor from UCL Department of Cell and Developmental Biology looked at healthy and cancerous cells of frogs and zebrafish. It was determined that cancerous cells began to spread as the healthy cells began to disperse in an attempt to elude their harmful invaders.
"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," Mayor stated, according to a press release.
"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."
The cancerous cells, or in this case neural crest cells, were attracted to healthy cells, or placode cells, and followed them as they moved throughout the body. Mayor and his colleagues have dubbed this phenomenon the "chase and run" mechanism.
"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," Mayor said.
Research from the past has shown that most forms of cancer are treatable if detected early enough. The chance of a cancer diagnosis becoming fatal rises when the cancer begins to spread to different areas of the body.
"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 colonize vital organs of the body such as the lungs or the brain," added Mayor.
According to the World Health Organization's data from 2008, 7.6 million people died from cancer that year alone. Cancer accounted for 13 percent of all deaths making it the leading cause of death worldwide.
Metastasis is another name for the process in which the rapid formation of abnormal cells causes them to reach other parts of the body including major organs. It is considered the major cause of cancer-related death.
Although science information manager at Cancer Research UK, Dr. Kat Arney, Ph.D., doesn't doubt the legitimacy of these findings, she does understand more tests need to be carried out before any official details regarding a cure can be released.
"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," Arney told The Telegraph.
"So there's a very long way to go to see whether this knowledge can be translated into new treatments for cancer patients."
Theveneau E, Steventon B, Scarpa E, et al. Chase-and-run between adjacent cell populations promotes directional collective migration. Nature Cell Biology. 2013.