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Virus reveals secret to cancer spread

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by Cancer Research UK | News

4 March 2009

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Cancer Research UK scientists studying a virus have unveiled an important clue to understanding how cancer spreads. Their research is published in Nature* today (Wednesday).

They discovered that the dynamics of the protein N-WASP determines how fast the vaccina virus moves. The vaccinia virus was used as a vaccine to eradicate Smallpox.

The researchers hope that the mechanism used by this virus to move can be compared with cancer cells, and eventually help reveal how to slow down or stop the spread of cancer.

Dr Michael Way, lead author based at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute, said: “We discovered that a faster turnover of N-WASP results in the virus moving more quickly. We think this is reflected in a faster growth rate of actin filaments – which are chains of the actin protein under the virus that help it jump from one cell to another.

“We hope our understanding of how this protein regulates actin filament growth will help researchers to understand how tumour cells spread as the signalling pathway this virus uses is similar to the one used by tumour cells to invade other parts of the tissue.”

The movement of tumour cells from the primary tumour to other parts of the body is the main reason that cancer can be so difficult to treat. Preventing this is one of the major challenges for research.

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “The process of cancer cells breaking away from their tumour and spreading to other areas of the body is very complex. Understanding how this works can hopefully help us to develop more effective cancer treatments in the future.”


For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

Weisswange, I., Newsome, T., Schleich, S., & Way, M. (2009). The rate of N-WASP exchange limits the extent of ARP2/3-complex-dependent actin-based motility Nature, 458 (7234), 87-91 DOI: 10.1038/nature07773