University of Alberta researcher Dr. John Lewis peers into a microscope that was purpose-built to study how cancer cells form “tentacles” allowing them to spread through the body. His team’s findings were published in the most recent issue of the journal, Cell Reports. Photograph by: Supplied , University of Alberta
EDMONTON – A study led by a University of Alberta research team has pinpointed how cancer cells form “tentacles” to spread from one part of the body to another, a finding that could open up new possibilities for treatment.
The team spent three years observing how micron-sized cancer cells develop tentacles, called invadopodia, that allow them to move from the bloodstream into another organ. Scientists had never before observed the phenomenon in a live model.
“At an airplane terminal, you have all of your paperwork in place and there are guards to check it and make sure you’re secure. The body is the same way,” said Dr. John Lewis, associate professor in the university’s department of oncology.
“The immune system checks cells as they escape and filters them … This process of escape from the bloodstream is an important checkpoint where most of the cancer cells are destroyed. But if they’re able to produce these invadopodia — the right paperwork — they’re able to escape.”
Lewis noted the deadliest aspect of cancer is often its spread to other organs in the body. Ninety per cent of patients who die of cancer have metastasis, or the spread of cancer.
“No man will die of prostate cancer if it stays in his prostate. It becomes dangerous when it spreads … The prostate is not life-threatening if you lose it,” said Lewis, who holds the Frank and Carla Sojonky Chair in Prostate Cancer Research.
That’s why understanding how cancer spreads is so important. The team’s research found doctors could use drugs or genetic means to stop the development of invadopodia.
The drug used by the team is already in clinical cancer trials, which Lewis called “encouraging.” He also noted there is evidence showing that doing a biopsy or surgery on a cancer tumour can sometimes cause cancer to spread, which would make an invadopodia inhibitor particularly important in those cases. The development of an inhibitor that directly attacks invadopodia will likely take five to 10 years, he said.
Lewis and his team used a $500,000 microscope and the protein of a deepsea jelly fish to do their work. The protein glows fluorescent green and clearly shows up in images as the cancer cell against a backdrop of red blood cells. The microscope was purpose-built for this study and is one of only two such microscopes in the world.
The study and the microscope were partially funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, which helped bring Lewis from Western University in Ontario to Alberta.
“I don’t have enough to say about John and his team; they’re experts in the field,” said Raja Mita, the foundation’s director of program investments. “He has credibility on the research side and also on taking scientific discoveries from the bench to the bedside.”
The team’s work was published in the most recent issue of the journal Cell Reports. Some of the study work was done by scientists at the Lawson Health Research Institute in Ontario.