New insights into cell migration and tissue formation could dramatically improve our understanding of tumor progression in cancer patients. In a new study, researchers from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Spain have determined that in certain cellular movements, the migratory process is led by a single cancerous cell holding the genetic “directions.” The findings could improve disease outcomes by helping oncologists anticipate developments in tumor growth.

For many organisms, the gradual migration of groups of cells is a crucial component of tissue formation and development. Unfortunately, this process can also drive cancerous tumor growth. The new study sought to illuminate the biological mechanisms that underpin this type of migration.

"Cancer researchers are keen to know how cells are organized to achieve migration and to form new capillaries to feed an expanding cancerous tumor," lead author Gaëlle Lebreton said in a press release. "Our study gives new data about how angiogenesis might arise.

In case you didn’t go to medical school, angiogenesis refers to the process whereby new blood vessels are formed, and is a critical step in a tumor’s nefarious journey to malignancy. This process requires the mobilization and synchronized migration of many subsets of cells. According to Lebreton and colleagues, an understanding of these migration patterns could have tremendous bearing on future oncological research and therapy.

To investigate, the researchers tracked a group of seven cells that form one of the so-called tracheal branches in the Drosophilia melanogaster fruit fly. Over seven hours, the researchers monitored the first hour of development for each of the cells. They found that within these migratory clusters, only one cell has receptors for a growth factor called FGF. Since the entire operation relies on this growth factor, the receptor cell acts as a leader, herding its peers to the end stage of the migration process. "This is a novel piece of work because we monitored the entire process in vivo and because it is the first time we have seen, in an experimental context, that a single cell can lead this multiple migration," senior author Jordi Casanova explained.

The current study is the latest in growing number of efforts to unravel the developmental and migratory patterns of cancerous cells. In a study published earlier this year, a team of physicists described their discovery of the basic “rules” of metastasis, or the process whereby a tumor spreads to surrounding organs. Hopefully, both studies will help oncologists develop new ways to anticipate and preempt malignant tumor growth.

Source: Lebreton G, Casanova J. Specification of leading and trailing cell features during collective migration in the Drosophila trachea. Journal Cell Science. 2013.