Cancer cell

Researchers at University College London have made a key discovery about how cancer spreads through the body, which could lead to drugs being developed to halt the process.

Scientists at the university carried out experiments on frog and zebrafish embryos and discovered a mechanism called ‘chase and run’ that showed how diseased and healthy cells follow each other around the body, reports The Telegraph.

Although they still do not understand what initially causes cancer, which claims 150,000 lives a year in Britain, it is hoped the team’s research could lead to further understanding of how the disease spreads so that drugs can be developed to prevent this.

University College London research team leader Professor Roberto Mayor told The Telegraph; "Nobody knew how this happened, and now we believe we have uncovered it. If that is the case it will be relatively easy to develop drugs that interfere with this interaction."

The team made the discovery by mimicking what they believe happens when cancerous cells attach themselves to healthy cells by using comparable types of cells and observing their behaviour.

Neutral crest cell, a common form of stem cell, played the role of the cancer cell, while placode cells, which eventually form part of the cranial nerve, performed the part of the healthy cell.

The scientists found that placodes attracted the neutral cells and were followed by them as they tried to escape.

"The findings suggest an alternative way in which cancer treatments might work in the future if therapies can be targeted at the process of interaction between malignant and healthy cells to stop cancer cells from spreading and causing secondary tumours.

"Most cancer deaths are not due to the formation of the primary tumour, instead people die from secondary tumours originating from the first malignant cells, which are able to travel and colonise vital organs of the body such as the lungs or the brain," explained Mayor.

Medical researchers now need to use the findings to better understand how cancer cells behave.

Cancer Research UK science information manager Dr Kat Arney, speaking to The Telegraph, said; "This research helps to reveal some of the fundamental biological processes that might be at work as cells move around the body, but the scientists have only looked at developing frog and zebrafish embryos rather than specifically looking at cancer cells.

"So there’s a very long way to go to see whether this knowledge can be translated into new treatments for cancer patients."

The full findings of the team’s research have been published in Nature Cell Biology.

Image: Electron microscopic image of a single human lymphocyte, a kind of white blood cell. Photo: Courtesy of Dr Triche National Cancer Institute.