Once this particular substance was blockaded, the team was able to limit cancerous cells to the primary tumors and stop their spread throughout other secondary areas. The study was recently published in the journal Cancer Research.
This new finding could allow the use of a simple blood test to track cancer progression and define the most appropriate treatment. “Capturing metastasis as it is happening is one of the great challenges of cancer treatment,” said Stefan Bekiranov from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and the U.Va. Cancer Center in a recent news release. “This could alter treatment decisions radically. Cells that are metastasizing are much more resistant to the standard therapies that we apply.”
This finding was the result of a series of experiments conducted by UVA researchers where they induced metastasis in non-small-cell cancer lung cells by exposing them to liquid media that was used to grow metastasized cancer cells.
“One thing to realize is that many of the processes that control metastasis are also associated with wound healing. Cancer finds a way to highjack these normally beneficial, natural processes,” said Marty W. Mayo of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics in the news release. “My laboratory created a model system so that we could study this association. We noticed that if we took media – material the cells were growing in – and dumped this liquid on naïve [non-manipulated] cancer cells that they would transform into metastatic cells. We postulated that there was something being released into the culture that made this happen, and we needed to find out what it was.”
To understand which substance could specifically stop cancer cell proliferation, researchers conducted epigenomic and transcriptomic analysis, concluding the specific protein was Activin A. The team then tested if this protein could avert cancer cell spread. “We found that when you blocked Activin A expression, the cancer cells would grow, and they would form a primary tumor, but they wouldn’t metastasize,” Dr. Mayo said in the news release. “We did protein analysis to see if Activin A protein was over-expressed in human lung cancer tissue samples, and the answer was yes. We believe this protein is expressed in many other types of cancer as well, including colon and breast cancer.”
This breakthrough opens the potential to limit cancer spread. There are already available drugs that can block Activin A, however, they also block vital proteins necessary for cells’ normal functions. Thus, future research should focus on the development of novel selective inhibitor drugs.