Friday, December 09, 2005

Cancer: how it spreads

The ability of cancerous tumors to spread through the body (metastasize) is what makes the disease so hard to treat. Scientists used to assume that tumors metastasize when individual cells break off from the main tumor and are carried by the bloodstream to other sites in the body.

However, a landmark study published in Nature has observed, for the first time ever, an important part of the actual metastasis mechanism, and it's not that simple.

In a nutshell: Before "emissary" cancer cells break off, the main tumor releases chemicals called growth factors into the blood. The growth factors induce certain cells in the body to produce a protein called fibronectin, which binds those cells together into a nest-like structure. This structure then attracts a certain type of bone marrow cell, completing the "nest." It's at this point that the tumor releases individual cells, which settle into the nest and begin forming a new tumor.

The potential for a huge breakthrough in cancer treatment lies in finding ways to block the growth factors involved or other steps in the metastisization process.

The full text of the article is available on the Nature website here.

—Mellow Monk

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