Aug. 5 In a finding that could pave the way for new drugs to slow down the
progression of cancer, scientists say they have discovered how a crucial protein
helps malignant cells spread through the body.
The molecule, Src, loosens the tissue around a tumor and allows cancerous
cells to metastasize, or grow in other organs, the researchers say. Their work
is reported in this month's issue of the journal Nature Cell Biology.
The scientists, at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow, say they believe that
drugs designed to block the action of the molecule could prevent cancer from
"We discovered what it is actually doing in human cancer cells," said Dr.
Margaret Frame, who headed the research team. "It is important in the molecular
understanding of how cancer cells spread."
Cancer develops when the control signals in the cell go wrong and an abnormal
cell forms. Instead of destroying itself, the mutated cell divides and
multiplies and forms a tumor. When cells escape from a tumor, they can invade
nearby parts of the body or travel to other organs. A breast cancer cell, for
example, can travel to the lymph nodes and then to the bones or liver.
While surgeons are skilled at removing the primary tumors, the disease
becomes much more serious if cells have broken off from the original site and
formed other tumors. Most deaths from cancer result from the uncontrollable
spread of cells from the tumor to other sites.
Src is the oldest known cancer-causing molecule. But until now scientists did
not know how it was involved in the disease.
While studying colon cancer, Dr. Frame and her colleagues discovered that the
molecule becomes overactive and breaks down the tissue's normal structure.
Src sends out signals for the removal of a molecule, E-cadherin, which is
needed to hold cells together. It also works with integrins, another set of
molecules, to form a new and much looser type of tissue structure that allows
cancerous cells to move and spread.
"We've now found that the molecule triggers several different chemical
signals in a variety of ways," Dr. Frame said. "Designing drugs to intercept
these signals could be an important way of preventing bowel cancer from
The molecule works in a similar way in many of the most common cancers,
including breast, prostate and ovarian, so a drug that blocks its action may
have potential in treating different cancer. "Hopefully we can slow down the
disease in patients," Dr. Frame said.
She added that she was confident that drugs that either prevent the cancer
from spreading from the original tumor or slow its progression could be
developed in the next few years.
"Improving our understanding of how cancer spreads should help in the
development of drugs to block the process," she said. "If we could confine
cancer cells to the original tumor it would give surgery a much greater chance
of success and reduce the risk of the disease reappearing in other parts of the
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