Cancer-associated fibroblasts stained to reveal their DNA (blue) and structural proteins (red). Credit: Dr Alice Santi, Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute
This entry is part 28 of 30 in the series Science Snaps
Cancer depends on blood. Just like the rest of the body, tumours need blood vessels to supply them with nutrients and oxygen to grow. But cancer uses these vessels in another way as well – to spread to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads – a process known as metastasis – it does so by a few cells breaking away from the main tumour and travelling through the blood stream or the network of vessels used to drain toxins from the body, the lymphatic system. If the conditions are right, circulating cancer cells get caught in a small blood vessel, escape, and grow into another tumour somewhere else in the body.
This makes the cancer much harder to treat. And it’s something that scientists are working to stop.
Researchers at the Beatson Institute in Glasgow are looking to see if targeting the cells that surround the tumour, rather than the tumour itself, could be a potential way of preventing cancer spread.
“The spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body is the primary cause of cancer death. And understanding this process is fundamental to learning how to prevent it.” says Dr Alice Santi, a postdoctoral researcher working on this project.
Studying cancer’s surroundings
Cancer cells don’t exist in isolation.
Most tumours are embedded in a network of cells that provide structural or connective support for an organ, otherwise known as the stroma.
This support system is made up of a variety of different cells, including cells called fibroblasts. These handy units produce all the molecules that make up the environment our cells live in, otherwise known as the extracellular matrix.
But these cells aren’t always good. In the presence of cancer cells, normal fibroblasts can be co-opted to become cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs).
These newly activated cells have been shown to play a crucial role in cancer progression, including metastasis. One way they do this is by changing the properties of the area surrounding the tumour, as well as the behaviour of both healthy and cancerous cells.
It’s these cells that researchers are hoping to target. But first, they need to know more about this vital support system and how it can change to promote tumour growth and metastasis.
Interrupting the conversation
Santi is focusing on how these fibroblasts communicate with the cells that line blood vessels.
“CAFs can modify the behaviour of these cells to support metastasis,” says Santi. She says that cancer cells need to enter the blood stream to spread, which requires them to interact with the cells lining blood vessels. And CAFs help to get blood vessels ready for that interaction.
“CAFs can provide the blood vessel cells with new functions by transferring them proteins they normally wouldn’t have.”
She hopes that understanding the communication between CAFs and blood vessels could uncover a way to stop it all together, blocking cancer spread.
Growing cells together
But before they can de-code this cellular chatter, Santi needs a good way to grow all the different types of cells together, a method known as co-culturing. This has proved to be a challenge.
“The problem with co-culture systems – where you have different cell types on the same place – is that you want to grow the cells together, but then want to analyse the behaviour of each cell type again, and there’s a problem in separating them. We’re working on an experimental model to try and address this,” explains Santi.
Santi and the rest of her research group, led by Professor Sara Zanivan, hope to develop this experimental model to improve the way they can study the way CAFs communicate and interact with other cells.
Their research focuses on the potential of exploiting CAFs to primarily treat breast and ovarian cancers, as they tend to grow in a rich stroma that contains a lot of CAFs.
“Because of their ability to remodel the environment where tumours grow, I think of CAFs as architects,” says Santi. “My research shows that one of the tools they use is the transfer of their own proteins. And thanks to the co-culture system, I now know what these proteins are. The next step is to see if blocking this transfer can indeed prevent metastasis.”
Harry Jenkins is a science media officer at Cancer Research UK
- Introducing our Science Snaps series
- Science Snaps: capturing the immune system and cancer
- Science Snaps: a sea of cells
- Science Snaps: why aren’t flies as big as hippos?
- Science Snaps: designer drugs
- Science Snaps: how skin cancer spreads – the round or flat of it
- Science Snaps: what can fluorescent fish teach us about skin cancer?
- Science Snaps: peering inside an expanding lymph node
- Science Snaps: Sir Henry Morris and the ‘anonymous Gentleman’
- Science Snaps: the art and science of cancer, the universe and everything
- Science Snaps: exposing melanoma’s ‘safe haven’ to help tackle drug resistance
- Science Snaps: divide by two
- Science Snaps: bridging the gap between nerve repair and cancer spread
- Science Snaps: prioritising the gene faults behind bowel cancer
- Science Snaps: switching T cells on – size matters
- Science Snaps: how knowing the shape of cancer cells could improve treatments
- Science Snaps: leukaemia cells are born to run
- Science Snaps: understanding where breast cancer stems from
- Science Snaps: fixing a cellular ‘antenna’
- Science Snaps: mapping cellular ‘stars’, one molecule at a time
- Science Snaps: a fly on the wall of cancer research
- Science Snaps: how nappy technology is helping us see cancer more clearly
- Science Snaps: digging for clues on how bowel cancer starts
- Science Snaps: spotting lung cancers’ ‘crime hotspots’
- Science Snaps: revealing a potential new marker for aggressive prostate cancer
- Science Snaps: seeing the effects of proteins we know nothing about
- Science Snaps: solving the mystery of an oddly-shaped tumour
- Science Snaps: targeting cancers’ surroundings
- Science Snaps: stopping cancer in its tracks
- Science Snaps: rearranging our understanding of the cancer genome
Dorothy Wilson March 8, 2020
I was lucky I found a lump in one breast, I had it removed and had Chemotherapy, and Radiotherapy
Mrs M. Smith February 18, 2020
Very informative e interesting. Not words to express our gratitude for all the invaluable and vital research that you are you doing.
Hazel Birmingham February 16, 2020
Extremely informative and can’t praise you all enough for the wonderful work you are doing. Wonderful people!!
Glenys Vernon February 13, 2020
As always it’s fascinating to read about the progress being mafe
CHERYL ANDERSON February 13, 2020
I am in remission from Cancer of Unknown Primary and this type of research may be able to help those of us with this type of cancer – I hope!? Both my parents died of cancer and others in my family have had various types of cancer. It is becoming so common that every and all research is more than welcome so thank you.
John Phillips February 13, 2020
Today is my wife’s last immunology treatment for lung cancer and brain mets. She has been lucky enough to be given two years, after the initial prognosis of months thanks to the treatment. Why then does this crutch of a treatment have to stop? It’s very hard to understand and to deal with.
Jan Phillips February 13, 2020
Would be brilliant if this could be sorted
John Browning February 13, 2020
Very informative,having been diagnosed with Prostate cancer eighteen months ago which had also escaped to one of my ribs the discussions regarding research and how cancers spread etc are of interest to me,Thank you.
Tony Gill February 13, 2020
My wife passed away 2016 from Multiple Myeloma I never see that type of cancer mentioned are they any further forward with it.
Linzi Wright February 13, 2020
Sounds good, but don’t understand why the actual tumour wouldn’t be targeted as well as the surrounding cells. What we need is a scan that can see minute cells that have broken away from the original rumour, that would revolutionise cancer. At present CT scans & even the marvellous PET scans cannot detect minute cells. We need an engineer to create a new scan for cancer, this would stop secondary cancers & save millions of lives.
Chris Dove February 13, 2020
Excellent information and well presented so not overwhelming. Thank you
AMELIA OBRIEN February 13, 2020
Peter Fox February 12, 2020
Treatment and still no cures after all these years
P fox February 12, 2020
Still would like there to be a cure rather than a treatment my wife is having maintenance at the moment. A good thing but like everything that seems to be talked about not a cure all these years and still no cures just treatments