Canadian scientists discover how cancer cells communicate with healthy cells in major breakthrough
Canadian scientists have made a major discovery about how cancer spreads: tumour cells appear to co-opt normal cells around them, in effect “talking” them into helping the cancer set up shop in other parts of the body.
The process, called metastasis, is what often makes malignancies so challenging to treat — and typically more deadly.
“People often think of cancer as this separate tissue, sort of like a foreign invader, a thing that’s sitting inside that’s separate from their normal body,” said principal investigator Jeff Wrana, a molecular biologist at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto.
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Doctors have successfully treated 13 people with myeloma by using genetically modified T-cells in a pilot study in the United States using a treatment developed by James Noble, CEO of Adaptimmune in Abingdon, U.K.
The study, while an extremely small sample, elicited a remission response after three months in 10 of 13 patients, and a positive response of some sort in all 13.
“The fact we got a response in all 13, you can’t get better than that,” Noble said.
“But, in fact, the cancers are intimately communicating in a dialogue with the normal cells around them,” he said. “So basically, the normal cells are passing signals to the tumour cells and the tumour cells are passing signals to the normal cells.”
Working with human breast cancer cells in the lab, Wrana and colleagues found that tumour cells get sets of instructions in the form of protein “messages” passed between healthy and cancerous cells.
It’s been known for a while that communication existed between these cell types, but it was thought it was akin to “words” or incomplete “sentences.”
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