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Gene discovery could shed light on how cancer cells spread

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by In collaboration with PA Media Group | News

11 January 2017

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A melanoma cell. Credit: Dr Erik Sahai.

UK scientists have revealed a number of genes that could play a role in how cancer cells spread through the body. 

Led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the study showed that removing one of these genes from cells in mice significantly reduced the spread of transplanted melanoma cells.

“This study… may highlight a potential way to treat cancer in the future” – Dr Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK

Lead scientist, Dr David Adams, said the discovery could point to new targets for drugs. 

Tumours that spread to other parts of the body are more difficult to treat and are the leading cause of death from cancer. But the underlying mechanisms that control how cancer cells spread aren’t well understood.

The Sanger team looked at the spread of melanoma skin cancer cells to the lungs of mice that were engineered to be missing single genes. This identified 23 genes that were involved in regulating the spread of melanoma cells, 19 of which hadn’t previously been shown to have a role in this process. 

Many of these genes are important for the function of the immune system, such as Spns2, which shuffles a molecule that controls the immune system in and out of cells. 

In mice that were missing Spns2, the resulting faulty signalling system increased the number of tumour-fighting immune cells that appeared in the lungs. This reduced tumour spread to the lungs by three-quarters, the researchers report in the journal Nature

While it’s unclear whether the same processes are at play in people, Dr Anneliese Speak from the Sanger Institute said that developing drugs which target Spns2 could cause “advantageous changes to the immune system”.  

“This work supports the emerging area of immunotherapy, where the bodies’ own immune system is harnessed to fight cancer,” she added. 

Dr Justine Alford, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, said: “This study in mice gives a new insight into the genes that play a role in cancer spreading and may highlight a potential way to treat cancer in the future. 

“Cancer that has spread is tough to treat, so research such as this is vital in the search for ways to tackle this process.”

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

van der Weyden, L. et al. (2017). Genome-wide in vivo screen identifies novel host regulators of metastatic colonisation. Nature. 541: 233-236. doi:10.1038/nature20792