Did you know that circulating tumour cells can target distant organs?

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Most cancers kill because tumour cells spread beyond the primary site to invade other organs. Now, a USC study found that circulating tumour cells can target specific distant organs.

The University of Southern California (USC), USA, study of brain-invading breast cancer cells circulating in the blood reveals that circulating tumour cells have a molecular signature indicating specific organ preferences.

The findings, which appear in Cancer Discovery, explain how tumour cells in the blood target a particular organ and may enable the development of treatments to prevent the spread of cancers, known as metastasis.

Isolating breast cancer cells

In this study, Min Yu, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, isolated breast cancer cells from the blood of breast cancer patients with metastatic tumours. Using a technique, she had developed previously, Yu expanded and grew the cells in the lab, creating a supply of material to work with.

Analysing the tumour cells in animal models, Yu’s lab identified regulator genes and proteins within the cells that apparently directed the cancer’s spread to the brain. To test this concept, human tumour cells were injected into the bloodstream of animal models. As predicted, the cells migrated to the brain. Additional analysis of cells from one patient’s tumour predicted that the cells would later spread to the patient’s brain – and they did.

Yu also discovered that a protein on the surface of brain-targeting tumour cells helps them to breech the blood brain barrier and lodge in brain tissue, while another protein inside the cells shield them from the brain’s immune response, enabling them to grow there.

Killing circulating tumour cells

“We can imagine someday using the information carried by circulating tumour cells to improve the detection, monitoring and treatment of the spreading cancers,” Yu said.

“A future therapeutic goal is to develop drugs that get rid of circulating tumour cells or target those molecular signatures to prevent the spread of cancer.”

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