Nipping Cancer Spread in the Bud

Cancer metastasis occurs when the protein periostin is present

(RxWiki News) It's when cancer spreads that patients are in the greatest danger. Thinking out of the box, scientists have narrowed their sights on a protein that could help nip metastasis in the bud.

Instead of looking at the "primary" tumors from which cancers spread, researchers have isolated a protein that's been shown to be in the thick of the action. When this protein was blocked in mice, metastasis in late stage cancers was blocked too.

"Medical researchers may be on the verge of preventing cancer metastasis."

A team of researchers from the Swiss Center for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) began the study knowing that cancer cells scatter throughout the body once a malignant tumor is established.

They also know these cells don't always lead to secondary cancers.

Only certain types can start metastasizing, and these cancer stem cells need to find a spot in the body, what researchers call a "niche," to settle in and start growing.

The ISREC team demonstrated various conditions that make cancer ripe for spreading, including the presence of a protein called periostin. Joerg Huelsken, holder of the EPFL Debiopharm Chair in Signal Transduction in Oncogenesis, explained in a press release announcing the findings,

"Without this protein, the cancer stem cell cannot initiate metastasis; instead, it disappears or remains dormant."

Periostin is active only in certain organs including the mammary glands, intestine, skin and bones. This study found it plays a key role in creating an environment that cancer cells need to grow.

Mice that were bred without the protein periostin were resistant to metastasis.

Huelsken's team developed an antibody that sticks to this protein and shuts down its operations. He says they are hoping to use this antibody to block metastasis. Of course, such an antibody has yet to be developed for humans, so all of this work is in its very earliest stages.

Still, this research holds the promise of one day preventing the metastasis of cancer and offering new ways to treat late stage cancers.

Results of this study were published December 7, 2011 in the advance online edition of the journal Nature.

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Review Date: 
December 7, 2011