Researchers at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) have discovered the process whereby cancers manage to spread throughout the body from their original site.
The research, under Professor Cedric Blancpain of the ULB’s stem cells and cancer laboratory, looked at the gene known as FAT1, which is known to be one of the genes that mutates most often in a number of cancers.
The research found that the mutations of the gene cause it to lose some of its functions, including the one that acts as a brake on the growth and spread of a tumour, away from its original site in, for example, the skin, and out to other organs of the body.
The research looked at cases of squamous cell carcinoma in the skin – the second most common form of cancer, in lung cancer, the most deadly, and in cancers of the head and neck.
While most cancers can be treated if caught early enough, the leading cause of mortality in cancer is metastasis: when cancer cells break off from the original tumour set off to other organs in the body which they then colonise and begin to destroy. The process where the cells set off on their journey is known in scientific terms as a hybrid EMT state.
Discovery of the mechanism used by cancer cells to migrate will make it possible to tailor therapies to the cause. For example, drugs used in lung cancer may also be useful in treating other cancers where FAT 1 mutations are involved. Another class of drugs used in leukaemia and other blood cancers have also proven in the laboratory to be effective against other FAT 1 cancers.
The team’s discoveries will have “very important and immediate implications for personalised therapy” for patients suffering from cancers involving FAT 1 mutations, Prof. Blancpain said.