Cambridge researchers discover how cancer spreads and look for drugs to stop it

How cancer spreads remains a mystery. Just how and why do cancer cells set off around the body to produce seedlings of cancer that grow into “secondaries” or metastases? What enables cancer cells to travel?

Through some amazing research, Cambridge scientists have revealed the answer. Cancer cells literally hijack a mechanism used by healthy cells to move around the body.

This stunning work completely changes the way we think about how the disease spreads.

The team based at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (CRUK) has found blocking the activity of a particular protein, NALCN, triggers spread (metastasis).

The research also showed this spread isn’t restricted to cancer cells because blocking NALCN causes healthy cells to leave their original tissue and travel around the body where they join other organs.

For example, researchers found healthy cells from the pancreas migrated to the kidney where they became healthy kidney cells, which suggests metastasis isn’t abnormal and limited to cancer cells. It’s normal and has simply been exploited by cancers to migrate to other parts of the body.

Professor Richard Gilbertson, director of the CRUK Cambridge Centre, said: “These findings are among the most important to have come out of my lab for three decades. Not only have we identified one of the elusive drivers of metastasis, but we have also turned a commonly held understanding of this on its head, showing how cancer hijacks processes in healthy cells for its own gains.

“If validated through further research, this could have far-reaching implications for how we prevent cancer from spreading and allow us to manipulate this to repair damaged organs.”

Metastasis has remained difficult to prevent, largely because researchers found it hard to identify drivers of spread that could be targeted by drugs.

But lead researcher on the study Dr Eric Rahrmann says: “We are ­incredibly excited to have identified a single protein that regulates not only how cancer spreads through the body.

“We can now consider whether there are likely existing drugs which could be repurposed to prevent this mechanism from triggering cancer spreading in patients.”

The research was funded by CRUK, whose director of research, Dr ­Catherine Elliott, said: “Discovering that a cancer has spread is always devastating news for patients, so we are delighted to have supported this research which may one day allow us to prevent metastasis and turn cancer into a much more survivable disease.”

A fantastic prospect.