Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have found a clue to stopping cancer metastasis, the spreading of the disease responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths.
A team led by Hasini Jayatilaka and Denis Wirtz discovered that a biochemical signaling process causes cancer cells to break away from an original tumor and spread to other areas of the body. The findings of their study were published in Nature Communications.
“We found that it was not the overall size of a primary tumor that caused cancer cells to spread, but how tightly those cells are jammed together when they break away from the tumor,” said Jayatilaka, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Physical Sciences-Oncology Center. “At a fundamental level, we found that cell density is very important in triggering metastasis.”
She continued, “It’s like waiting for a table in a severely overcrowded restaurant and then getting a message that says you need to take your appetite elsewhere.”
This year 1,688,780 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and 600,920 will die, according to the American Cancer Society.
The Johns Hopkins team also identified a drug cocktail that seems to interrupt cancer’s tendency to spread and slow its movement around the body. It was tested on animals, but researchers believe the results are promising and could be replicated in humans.
Current cancer treatment often focuses on reducing the size of an original tumor by targeting it with chemotherapy and radiation. Using drugs like the combination identified by Jayatilaka and Wirtz would mark a departure from that norm, instead focusing on how to stop the cancerous cells from setting up shop in other areas of the body.
Wirtz, director of the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center, said the promising treatment has the potential to stop metastasis and “improve cancer patient outcomes.”
“Our study looked more closely at the steps that actually initiate metastasis,” Wirtz said. “By doing this, we were able to develop a unique therapeutic that directly targets metastasis, not the growth of the primary tumor.”
The two drugs in the cocktail, Tocilizumab and Reparaxin, prevent cancer cells from receiving “relocation orders” that would cause them to spread.