Metastasis – the point in cancer development when the disease has started spreading to other areas of the body, can significantly influence prognosis. It makes treatment considerably more difficult and poses additional health concerns for the patient. This is why, when it comes to cancer, early detection and intervention are so crucial.
Researchers at the University of Basel investigating breast cancer samples have identified one process that seems to set in motion metastasis. Their attention focused on circulating tumor cells (CTCs), cancerous cells that detach from a primary tumor and enter the bloodstream. These can be found alone or in cluster formations. It seems that CTC clusters can lead to epigenetic changes that facilitate metastasis seeding.
These changes allow CTC formations to mimic certain properties of embryonic stem cells, including their ability to proliferate while retaining tissue-forming capabilities. The team also determined that these alterations are fully reversible upon the dissociation of CTC clusters.
”We thought of acting differently from standard approaches, and sought to identify drugs that do not kill cancer cells, but simply dissociate them”, noted Prof. Nicola Aceto from the Department of Biomedicine.
This led them to test 2,486 FDA-approved compounds used for a number of different indications. In the end, they found several inhibitors that could dissociate patient-derived CTC clusters. Separating the clusters resulted in epigenetic remodeling and prevented the formation of new metastases.
Breast cancer remains the most commonly occurring form of malignancy in women, and the second most common cancer overall, according to statistics from the American Institute for Cancer Research. 2018 reported an excess of 2 million cases worldwide, continuing a trend of high incidence.
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