New insight into the tricks cancer cells use to keep growing could help beat disease

There seems to be no end to the inventiveness in cancer ­research – the latest study from Imperial ­College London even promises to contain its spread.

I noticed the TV adverts for Cancer Research have changed from “Together we shall beat cancer” to “Together we are beating cancer”. And in no small part are we beating cancer through Imperial’s work. Cancer cells can change shape to travel around the body and spread (metastasise), but how they know when to do this has remained elusive.

Researchers have now used a new technique to identify two genes that control how melanoma skin cancer cells change shape in response to their environment – offering two potential drug targets to stop it spreading. Cancer cells can become ­drill-shaped to “poke” through dense tissue such as bone; or round and squishy to squeeze through soft tissues and get into the blood.

The latest study uncovered genes affecting how cells know what ­environment they are in and therefore which shape to choose. Chris Bakal, professor of cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research, explains: “Once cancer becomes ­metastatic and spreads to different parts of the body, it can be quite ­difficult to treat.

“This research has given us insight into the tricks that cancer cells are using to keep growing and spreading. We’ve identified two genes which could, in the future, be targeted to stop melanoma cancer from changing shape and metastasising.”

The team developed a new system to study cells in 3D environments, mimicking different parts of the body. A unique microscope called ssOPM (stage-scanning oblique plane ­microscopy) was used to take 3D images of 60,000 melanoma skin cancer cells and identified two genes important for those cells to change shape in response to environment.

The researchers believe these genes, TIAM2 and FARP1, could be targeted to prevent melanoma cancer from spreading. Both are also good candidates for drug discovery because they have a structure similar to other proteins for drugs which are already in early ­development.

Imperial’s Professor Chris Dunsby is optimistic about this research, the first to use the new ­microscopy technique to study many thousands of cells in 3D. In the future he hopes the approach can address a wide range of questions in cancer biology and reduce the time taken to develop new drugs.

Professor Kristian Helin, CEO of the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “By using an innovative technique to study cells as if they were in a human, rather than in a laboratory, our scientists have uncovered a mechanism which cancer cells are using to move around the body.” Amazing.