Researchers discover the origins of metastasis

A team of scientists from the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI) in New York, led by oncologist Joan Massagué, have discovered how tumours spread through metastasis. These new findings could lead to the development of new cancer treatments. 

Metastasis is the process of cancer spreading from one part of the body to another and is sometimes referred to as ‘secondary cancer’. It is responsible for around 90% of cancer deaths. 

The Sloan Kettering Institute study concludes that metastasis-initiating cells trick the body’s natural wound-healing mechanisms in order create pathways to spread tumours throughout the body.

This research proves that metastasis does not take place as a result of genetic mutation, as was previously thought. These new findings that are published in the Nature Cancer journal, offer a new baseline for considering metastasis and how to treat it.

Joan Massagué explained: "We now understand metastasis as the regeneration of the wrong tissue - the tumour - in the wrong place, the distant vital organs.This is not just a metaphor. It is literally true in molecular and physiological terms."

In order for metastasis to take place, cancer cells must separate from neighbouring cells, to allow them to reach the blood or lymphatic system. Though this process of a cancer cell travelling to another part of the body is not an easy task, once it gets there it is extremely difficult to get rid of because they are, “a completely different entity from the tumour they started in,” says physician-scientist and SKI researcher. Karuna Ganesh. 

While previous research has suggested that cancers might use wound-healing pathways to support their growth, the new findings from the SKI present the first detailed picture of how this process works at the cell and molecular level.

Reference: Ganesh, K., Basnet, H., Kaygusuz, Y. et al. L1CAM defines the regenerative origin of metastasis-initiating cells in colorectal cancer. Nature Cancer 1, 28-45 (2020), https://www.nature.com/articles/s43018-019-0006-x

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