The spread of deadly cancer cells has been reduced by 75% in animal experiments conducted by scientists at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge in the UK, giving new insight into how tumors spread and may lead to new treatments.
Around 90% of cancer deaths are caused by the spread of cancer – known as metastasis – to other parts of the body. Metastasis is a fight between a rapidly mutating cancer and the rest of the body.
In their attempts to figure out what affected tumor spread in the body, the researchers created 810 sets of genetically modified lab mice to discover which sections of the DNA were involved in the body resisting a cancer’s spread.
The animals were injected with melanomas (skin cancer) and the team counted the number of tumors that formed in the lung, which led them to discover 23 sections of DNA (genes) that made it either easier or harder for a cancer to spread. Many of these genes were involved in controlling the immune system.
Targeting one gene – called Spns2 – led to a three-quarters reduction in tumors spreading to the lungs.
According to Dr. David Adams, one of the team, the Spns2 gene regulated the balance of immune cells within the lung. It changes the balance of cells that play a role in killing tumor cells and those that switch off the immune system.
The field of immunotherapy – using the immune system to fight cancer – has delivered dramatic results for some patients.A rare few with a terminal diagnosis have seen all signs of cancer disappear from their body, although the drugs still fail to work in many patients.
Dr. Adams said they have learned some interesting new biology that they may be able to use – the Spns2 gene is involved in tumor growth.
Drugs that target Spns2 could produce the same cancer-slowing effect but that remains a distant prospect.
Dr. Justine Alford, from Cancer Research UK, said that cancer that has already spread is difficult to treat so research like the one conducted by the team is vital in the search for ways to tackle the spread of cancer.